Monday, May 22, 2017

What Memorial Day means to me

An Internet acquaintance of mine, Dan Elder, Cmd Sgt Maj, US Army, Retired (@DandotElder) shared a tweet by Duane K. L. France (@ThCounselingVet) asking readers to "Change Your POV About Memorial Day".  Even at the expense of forgoing the rest of my article, I urge you to follow the link and change your POV of Memorial Day.

If you came back after reading the above article, thank you.  Now you get to hear another veteran's take on what Memorial Day means to him.  It's only one story of millions and not that spectacular, but it is genuine.

First, let me make it clear that I served my four years during peace time.  I took my honorable discharge after four years because I decided I didn't want to make the military my career.  I was put on standby for the First Gulf War, but I was never recalled to duty.  As I write the rest of this article, in no way do I want to mislead you, the reader, into thinking maybe I was a combat veteran. 

That said and stated, what does Memorial Day mean to me? 

From my earliest memories, Memorial Day signified the three day weekend welcoming in summer.  It meant about a week more of school, maybe two if we used up all of our snow days, and then nothing but swimming and fishing every day.

Somewheres along the way, I came to learn that Memorial Day was the day to honor our fallen veterans.  I understood the esoteric sense of the meaning of Memorial Day but, I suspect like a lot of people, the meaning held a degree of emotional disconnect.  Despite hailing from a military family, I didn't know anyone who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. 

Sure, I'd cheer at a parade as veterans groups from wars past marched by, watch in silent reverence the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or get choked up listening to Taps play, but my actions and reactions were mechanical, without emotion.  It was all part of building my national pride rooted firmly and deeply in our collective history, a history built with blood, sweat, and tears and often with the ultimate sacrifice of our veterans who ensured we lived in the land of the free.

But after the last group had paraded by, or the clip of the President attending the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had ended, or a soldier had lowered his bugle and saluted the fallen as he ended his rendition of Taps, the weekend was still beer, burgers, and fishing.

Funny thing happens as one ages.  The emotional disconnect grows smaller each year.  Maybe it's the result of an accumulation of life's experiences.  Maybe it's the result of our tendency for introspection as we hit grandparent age and older.  Maybe it's the result of both factors or other factors I haven't even thought of yet. 

The dwindling emotional disconnect isn't an overnight event either.  The emotional disconnect simply grows smaller and smaller, almost imperceptibly, with each passing year.  Then one day you sit down at the keyboard linked to your favorite social media platform (or if you're old fashioned, you pick up a pen and paper) and you fire off a tirade about a bonehead decision some elected official made.  Later that night while watching the news, you see a report of a veteran killed in some far away place or you see a public service announcement regarding our wounded warriors and it then hits you.  They are the ones who made it possible for you to fire off that tirade earlier.

It may take some more time, but you begin to realize veterans over the last two hundred years plus and the veterans today are the ones who have made it possible for you to go to the Church of your choice every Sunday or forgo Church altogether to watch football and drink beer.  They are the ones who have made it possible for you march in the streets to air your grievances or show support for someone else's cause.  They have made it possible for you to read any publication of your choice or write anything you want.  They are the ones who have strengthened our social and legal infrastructure so that there are not "state approved" religions, publications, or public gatherings.  They are the ones who have ensured the government stays out of our homes and allow us to move about freely without being snatched off the streets and thrown in jail without probable cause or requiring proper papers to travel between states. 

Fallen American veterans who never returned to
American soil.  The Normandy American Cemetery
and Memorial is one of 26 cemeteries for our
veterans on foreign soil.
That's when you realize the veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice - their lives - so you can drink beer, eat burgers, and go fishing as you kick off summer deserve their special day of honor.  They sacrificed their opportunity to kick off summer with their families so that you could. 

Veterans continue to give the ultimate sacrifice today to ensure none of our daily activities we take for granted and enjoy are ever taken from us.

In the last two decades, I've come to realize another set of veterans we should honor on Memorial Day.  Those are the veterans who returned home, wounded. 

Most of us recognize the heartbreaking wounds we can readily see - veterans coming home in wheelchairs or missing arms and legs.  They came home, but they sacrificed a part of themselves on the battlefield that will forever alter their lives. 

Then there are the wounds we don't see.

"My son came home, but he's different.  I don't know how to talk to him.  He's not the same."

I'm not sure if those are the exact words of the mother in the commercial talking about her son's adjustment to civilian life while suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, but they're pretty close.

That commercial took me back sixteen years to something a veteran said to me that I didn't exactly know how to interpret back then. 

Like always, he was drunk.  I can't recall what we were talking about before his one moment of clarity nor what we talked about after his one moment of clarity.  That one moment of clarity is all that seared a permanent image in my mind.

His lifelong drinking problem got him to the point that he often repeated the same stories, sometimes two or three times within an hour span.  One day, in between one of his oft repeated stories, his booze glazed eyes cleared to a bright brown.  They were the bright eyes of a hopeful, young man filled with regret and sorrow.

"He couldn't have been more than nineteen," he started in a clear, slurred-free speech.  "He was less than a hundred yards away." 

He swallowed hard to hold back his emotion.  "I wonder what kind of family he would have had today."

He quickly swigged a shot of whatever he was drinking.  His eyes glazed over to his normal drunken stupor in a blink as he moved on to one of his oft repeated stories.

I knew from his previous, but vague, stories he must've been talking about his experience in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs fiasco almost forty years earlier.  That moment of clarity made sense of his life long dislike for President Kennedy and why he always referred to him as a cowering coward even in his more sober days. 

He experienced something in Cuba, but exactly what I'll never know.  The veteran passed away within a year after that moment of clarity he shared with me.  Over the last few years of his life, he tried sharing his story, but didn't know how.  He came close that one day, but his time was too short to finish his story.

When I saw that commercial of the mother describing her son, it resonated with me.  We hold our veterans up as heroes and we're all taught that heroes don't feel pain, sorrow, and regret.  When our veterans experience the horrors of battle, many let the idealistic, young man inside them die on the battlefield simply because they don't know how to talk about their experiences and seek help, yet still be heroes.

I can't help but wonder if the veteran who tried to talk about his experience in Cuba would've been a different - and maybe sober - man if he hadn't been in Cuba or he knew how to seek help to deal with his experience only he truly understood.  That's another side of the story I'll never know.

Memorial Day is set aside to honor our veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  I've expanded it to include honoring the veterans who buried part of themselves on the battlefield, but came home - different.  Our wounded veterans, both physically and emotionally scarred, sacrificed a part of themselves so we can drink beer, eat burgers, and go fishing as we usher in a new summer in freedom.  We should salute each and every one of them as we honor our fallen veterans.

TL;DR folks
If you read the first paragraph, but didn't follow the link, "Change Your POV About Memorial Day," please do so.

We salute you and thank you:

Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks

No comments:

Post a Comment