Memorial Day 2011

Another year, another three-day weekend, so naturally I end up with the mental gears grinding away on something far from festive. Go figure.

My train of thought started rolling innocently enough, when a friend shared a link to a reposted essay titled ” Happy Memorial Day? What’s so happy about it?. Apparently written by a military widow who lost her husband sometime in 2006 (based on some reference points), it speaks rather poignantly about the inappropriate use of the word “happy” in connection with a holiday meant to honor those who died while in military service. It also goes on to talk about the importance of parents teaching their children about the real meaning behind the day & how it goes beyond grilling and beer.

To be honest I filed that away as an interesting read, mentally reviewed the various discussions with my own son about those sacrifices and thus reassured that I’d met my parental responsibilities in this area to date, moved on. Truth is, all the well-written rants in the world aren’t likely to make a dent in self-absorption syndrome that plagues our country today and I wasn’t in the mood to go out of my way to find another windmill to tilt at for a few days. In short, the author was right but I’m not delusional enough to think I’m going to change much outside my own very tiny orbit.

Within the same 24 hours, I noticed a Facebook post from someone I’ve known my entire life, noting that his dad was among those who fought on Iwo Jima back in 1945. He would survive that horror and eventually return to the small town where I grew up. I made a mental note of that fact, one of those things that I knew/remembered but hadn’t thought about in a number of years … and carried on with my routine, not particularly festive but a routine nevertheless.

That brings me to Sunday afternoon, sitting in the den with my back to the TV, talking to my wife & halfway listening to the PBS rerun of The War she was watching. It was the “whatever happened to” part of the episode where narrator Keith David details the post-war lives of some of those featured earlier in the show, including some comments from what must have been a former prisoner of the Japanese (civilian maybe?) who explained how she didn’t talk about her experiences much since she quickly realized that no one really wanted to hear about them even when they asked, instead preferring to talk about their own stateside “suffering” due to rationing and the like.

Right about there, something started to click in my head … or at least the mental machinery lurched into motion.

I mentioned that schoolmate’s grandfather, the Iwo Jima veteran, to my wife. We talked about how, given that I was very young during the years I saw him most, I thought of him in a number of ways but that “veteran” wasn’t one of the first 5 or 10 things I think of when remembering him. That’s not to diminish his service in the least, it’s simply that there were other things about him that stood out to a small child. Even then I recall being aware of how liked & respected he was in the community, a reputation as a good man (no higher praise than that where I come from), a respected business owner, and the best doggoned butcher to ever grace a Georgia meat counter. That he was a veteran, much less of such a historic time & place, wasn’t something that entered my consciousness & that’s a shame because it would have elevated him to iconic status for a combat history obsessed kid like me.

That recollection took the conversation with my wife to various relatives, all gone now I believe, who were also survivors of World War II. We swapped the second hand accounts we got from closer family members, about how those who served talked (or didn’t) about the things they saw and endured. Matching stories from relatives on each side about how the night the “river ran red with blood”, from the similar descriptions we may have had a combined three relatives all fighting at a tributary of the Rhine, none of whom knew the other was there at the time. From the European Theater to the Pacific, the common post-war experience seemed to mostly be one of stoicism as much as possible, certainly none whose service was outwardly a primary characteristic.

Those stories passed down through generations led me to think about some of the other veterans I’ve known through my life. One who hit the beach at Normandy, another who survived the Tet Offensive, a former CSM of the Army, another who survived the Battle of the Bulge, an great uncle who was on board the ship as the Japanese signed the surrender documents in Tokyo Bay. My dad and all nine brothers who wore one uniform or another. An early SEAL trainer. Friends, cousins, classmates, co-workers, their children & their families. Loved ones, related or not, who’ve proudly served during times of war, peace, and often both.

I can almost hear you out there now “Jon, it’s Memorial Day, not Veterans Day. This is about the fallen, not the survivors”. I know, but hear me out. What started forming in my mind is how the two groups are related, bonded by something most of us honestly can’t quite fully grasp.

When privileged to talk to those veterans, one of the common threads was the bond felt by those survivors to those who didn’t make it home, a relationship fraught with emotional turmoil but a relationship so dear to them that they would never abandon it no matter the cost. They walked among us everyday, often unrecognized as to their background just as I described earlier, while carrying in a unique way the burden of bearing witness to tragic history, both extremely personal and on the grand scale. I thought also of the latest generation of combat veterans, men and women who will likely remain largely just an anonymous in that regard. They won’t be thought of immediately as “a veteran”, they’ll be a classmate’s parent or a neighbor or a pillar of a community or the guy as the garage. Heroes that walk among us, whether we’re aware of their presence or not. In many ways, that’s also a legacy shared by the fallen: unknown to the vast majority of us but most assuredly their impact surrounds us every day.

I hope everyone enjoys their Memorial Day weekend, nothing wrong with that as far as I can see. I think what I’m trying to say is that as we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation, and we definitely should give them more than a passing thought on this day (and the other 364), I believe we also pay tribute to them in honoring those who served with them — everyday, not just one day a year — the two groups are forever intertwined.

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