More than 15 years have passed since I donned an Army uniform.

Combine that time with the long distance from the place I served, and it's meant little if any contact with my fellow soldiers.

Still, it's easy to remember the good and bad times we shared, and the many different personalities in an Army Reserve unit that drew people from all walks of life.

Most of the men and women in our outfit were in for the standard, six-year enlistment. After that, we returned to careers and lives that didn't include military service.

Then there were those in for the long haul, the rare individuals who managed civilian lives and military careers long past the required enlistment.

On a recent road trip, I caught a radio report on such a soldier one I had the good fortune to know.

And as happens during war, the news wasn't good.

Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Laborde, 53, of Waterloo, Iowa, had died in Afghanistan.

I'd later learn he suffered a heart attack while leading his troops in a physical training session, a detail that didn't make his death any less tragic. You don't have to take a bullet to be a hero.

The sad news took me back to my time in a Middletown, Iowa, unit in the early 1990s, when Laborde served as our first sergeant and leader.

He insisted that we work hard, but also made sure we took time to laugh. Such balance went a long way in making our job easier.

Laborde's military career blossomed over 31 years as he would achieve the highest enlisted rank and honor of serving as a command sergeant major. The devoted husband, father of five and grandfather of two also made time to teach classes at his church.

It was no surprise to hear those who recently served with Laborde remember him as a soldier's soldier, and devoted to his troops.

During one of our summer camps, I was in charge of a group effort to erect a huge radio antenna on a hill in Central America. It became quite a struggle.

Rather than stay on the sidelines and bark orders, Laborde joined in and helped us get the job done. He led by example.

Now he's gone, another outstanding American lost to war.

He was among nearly 1,000 U.S. military troops to die in Afghanistan so far. Another 4,400 have perished in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the wars have become a bit of an afterthought for many Americans. How sad that debate over illegal immigration, a far less pressing matter than war, draws more attention and passionate discourse than the ongoing battles that exact such a costly toll in lives and dollars.

And there's plenty to debate and question, not the least of which would be the deplorable state of veterans affairs.

So many vets face physical disabilities, mental illnesses and financial woes. Resources available to them, and to families who lose loved ones to war, are far from adequate.

Today is Armed Forces Day, a time for the nation to honor all who have served.

Every American should vow to salute U.S. troops on this special day, and also honor them with a commitment to fight for their needs. They deserve no less.

E-mail Editor-publisher Dena Sattler at denas@ gctelegram.com.