Memorial Day

Memorial Day

Yesterday, FB showed me a “memory” from 10 years ago. It was a post I’d made about Memorial Day and how, a decade before that, I tried explaining to my then young son about the meaning of the day and its importance to our family. That explanation didn’t take place on Memorial Day itself but during a visit to Washington D.C. So today, as I sit here drinking my first cup of coffee of the day, I’m remembering that visit and that conversation and thinking about every man and woman who gave their lives for our country.

That fateful trip took place more than 20 years ago. My son was still in elementary school and Mom and I decided to take him on a road trip back east to see family and friends. We spent months planning it out: where to stop along the way, what sights to see, who to visit along the way. The only key was that we would spend several days in the Washington DC area before heading to Niagara Falls.

We did the usual things touristy things around DC, including taking a tour that included the main government buildings, the National Archives and more. But the focus of our time there was the National Mall, the monuments, and the Smithsonian.

What I hadn’t expected was how one exhibit at the Smithsonian would impact me–or how I’d have to explain that emotional toll to my son. That exhibit was for the Vietnam War. You see, I grew up during the war. I remember watching the “live” reports on television, something no other generation before mine had. The older brothers, the fathers, the uncles of friends of mine fought in the war. Some didn’t make it home. Others did, but they would later die as a result of wounds, mental and/or physical, they came home with. Some, including my Uncle John, were POWs of the Viet Cong.

So walking through an exhibit of what those POWs went through, seeing the bamboo cages some of them were held in, seeing the pictures, reading the testimonials–let’s just say it hit home with a punch the force of an atom bomb going off. I had images of my uncle, who was only a shell of himself after the war before he died. I didn’t realize I was crying until my son asked what was wrong.

I couldn’t say anything. The emotion was too strong. I remained too strong when we visited the Korean War Memorial. Seeing my mother reacting as strongly to it as I had to the Smithsonian exhibit and my son struggling to understand why two strong women were suddenly emotional, I knew I had to find the words.

I did at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or the Wall. Panel after panel of black granite rise from the ground, its dark surface etched with the names of approximately 58,000 men and women who gave their lives in that war. As families and friends left their own memorials or traced the names of their loved ones, I found the words to explain to my son why his grandmother and I had been so moved by the Korean War Memorial and by the exhibit at the Smithsonian.

I spoke about his great-Uncle John, of how he ran away as a young teen to join the Navy in World War II before being brought home months later after the Navy found out he lied. How he joined up again, this time legally, once he was of age. John served for more than two decades before retiring. During that time, he was taken prisoner more than once, escaping each time. But the wars, especially Vietnam, took their toll on him. He died several years after moving back home from causes that today would be traced back to his service.

I also talked about others in our family, going back to the Civil War, who served and who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. That sacrifice happened on the battlefield even if, at times, it wasn’t instant. I reminded him of his great-great-great grandfather who suffered terrible injuries during the Civil War but who made it home. Those injuries would eventually lead to his death.

But then, with tears once again running down my face, I told him–with Mom’s help–the story of a young man from Ardmore, OK. He was the “good” son, while his brother chose to take another road. After high school, he volunteered to join the Army even though he knew he would probably be sent to Vietnam. He told his mother, who worked at the same hospital as my own mother did, that it was his duty to serve the country that had been so good to them.

Through Basic, through everything including being shipped to Vietnam, he wrote home. His mother came to expect his almost daily letters. While it wasn’t the same as having him home, it was the next best thing. She knew as long as the letters came that her dear son was alive and would come home to her and the rest of the family.

Then the letters stopped. It was during, if I remember correctly, the Tet Offensive. For the first several days, she didn’t worry. At least not too much. Instead, she waited. Then the days turned into a week and a week into two. She started contacting anyone and everyone she could: the Red Cross, the Army, her members of Congress. No one said anything beyond, wait. They said she’d have been told already if something happened to her son.

If only they’d been right.

This mother, a lovely woman who valued her family and her country, learned of her son’s death on a battlefield so many miles from home, when she collected the mail one day. It wasn’t an official letter. It was on a magazine cover. There, looking up at her in living color was the image of her son dying in his CO’s arms. His death, and the events leading up to it, was the focus of an article.

She was shattered but not broken. I remember meeting her when I was in my teens. My parents and I had driven to Ardmore to visit family there and Mom wanted me to meet her. You see, this lady–and that’s exactly what she was–baked my first birthday cake. She babysat me on occasion before my parents left Ardmore for Texas. And my mother stayed in contact over the years.

Anyway, back to our visit. The house was small, like many of the older homes there. But it was immaculate. Taking a place of honor in the home was a display case with that magazine front and center. I could see and feel her pain even after all that time but what struck me was her pride. Her pride in her son and his sacrifice–he’d been killed trying to save his squadmates. Her pride in her country, a country that hasn’t always been kind to people of her race. Even her pride in the military despite the way the notification of her son’s death had been bungled.

That, to me, was the heart of not just patriotism but the true meaning of Memorial Day. The day doesn’t take away the hurt of losing a loved one. But it is a time we remember why they were there. We honor their service and their sacrifice. We share the memories of those loved ones and why they chose to serve. It isn’t a day of celebration but of reflection.

So today, I will reflect on all those brave souls who have stepped up and made the ultimate sacrifice for this country of ours. It might not be perfect, but it is still the best place to live, in my opinion. So I raise a glass, offer up a prayer, and remember those absent friends and family members.

Featured image created using Midjourney AI

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