Memorial Day is again upon us, and the current abnormalities of our lives notwithstanding, the deep emotions and memories of our fallen are felt by many of us.
Also present during Memorial Day are the awkward moments and conversations. We see and hear: “Don’t thank me for my service,” “This is about the ones who never made it back,” not to mention the many memes around social media that emphasize the sacrifices made that allow for the leisure we all enjoy, not just on Memorial Day, but every day. One that comes to mind is the side-by-side image of the Normandy landings on D-Day next to a crowded beach on a holiday weekend.
It goes without question that us veterans, as well as those still serving, feel the impact and understand the meaning of Memorial Day, but it is also without saying that this is felt by any civilian who has lost a loved one in military service. It would be wrong to assume that a void is not present with friends, old classmates, neighbors, etc… of the fallen.
One of several memorials outside the HQ of 2nd Bn 8th Marines at Camp Lejeune, NC
I cannot lie, I have been “that vet” over the years who has scolded people for not knowing the true meaning of Memorial Day. So why does it bother us so much when we are thanked for our service or when our fellow Americans think Memorial Day is a nod to the troops versus a memory of the fallen?
For some there is an absolute sense of survivor’s guilt. I served with a Gunnery Sgt who had left Beirut, Lebanon just days before the bombing of the Marine barracks on October 23, 1983, he opened up to me not long ago as to how much he struggles with not being one of those who died. This is not an uncommon feeling.
There is also a frustration that the general public does not appreciate nor understand why this day means so much to us and the families of the fallen. But overtime I have come to find most civilians, if they have not had a direct connection to the military, simply have never been truly exposed to the meaning that we hold so dear. So, this shouldn’t be confused with apathy or a lack of respect for the fallen, rather we should see those who thank us as doing what they only know and think to be the right thing. While of course we should seize the opportunity to share the story of Memorial Day, and specifically those we had a personal connection to; scolding them for their good intention is not helping.
Then there comes the frustration that rather than mourning or taking pause, most people are simply enjoying a long weekend and the start of summer. Yes, it can seem as if people don’t care, and if we choose to see it that way, we continue to widen the divide between us and our fellow citizens.
Arguably one of the most recognizable war memorials in the United States, the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
A couple of years ago, I remember being very abrasive with a co-worker who thanked me for my service and jovially asked if I had any big plans for the weekend. I was so annoyed and went off about how they did not get it and how dare they associate fun and happiness with the memory of the fallen. Well I received an education that day and a lesson in humility. An observing co-worker later pulled me aside and explained how she lost her brother while he was serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan. She went on to tell me about the letter he had written in the event of his death which was sent to her parents shortly after he was killed. In his letter he asked some very simple things of his family; he asked that they celebrate his life not mourn him, to be happy about his decision to serve, to never stop living the free and happy life he took an oath to protect and missed so much of. But, it was the final ask that made the biggest impact to me, she remembered her brother’s words exactly: “whenever you meet another soldier, please know you are meeting a brother of mine, someone who if they could have traded places with me would have, someone who probably has lost people. Please be kind to them.”
The US Army Ranger Memorial at Ft. Benning, Georgia
That conversation has stayed with me and it taught me the most important thing we can do to honor those we lost is live a life they did not get to come home and enjoy. When we see people enjoying the beach or a BBQ, we need to realize they are doing exactly what we yearned to come home to do and those we lost will never enjoy again.
One of many places in Europe where the sacrifices of American warriors who fought during World War II are honored and memorialized. This is in Margraten, The Netherlands
We must all choose our own path when it comes to how we remember the fallen, and yes, for many, it will always be easier said than done to celebrate life versus mourn it. That is a 365 days a year struggle, not just on Memorial Day. For me, as I remember that conversation with a colleague a few years ago, and as I think of those I personally have lost in the service to this country, I choose to honor them by doing the best I can and live the best life I can because they never got that chance.
Gone but never forgotten, may our fallen brothers and sisters always rest easy. We will meet again.