On remembering our war dead

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I never knew my maternal grandfather. He died, not long after World War II, while fishing in Colorado’s Arkansas River. My mom was six years old at the time.

My grandfather served as a corpsman in the South Pacific during World War II. He survived machine gun fire in some of the fiercest battles of that campaign. The Army awarded him Bronze Stars for heroism and bravery for treating and rescuing soldiers while being engaged by enemy combatants. He survived the war.

And not long after the war, he drowned while fishing the Arkansas River.

I remember my grandfather on Memorial Day even though he didn’t perish while in uniform. Memorial Day was created to honor those who died while in military service. By remembering my grandfather on Memorial Day, I’m expanding the meaning of the holiday to meet my personal need to remember.

Others expand the day’s proclaimed meaning to remember loved ones (whether they served in the military or not). And others expand it to thank all people who served or now serve in the military (although that’s the purpose of Veterans Day, not Memorial Day). I often got riled up back in the day when people thanked me on Memorial Day for my Naval Academy and Marine Corps service. I sometimes wanted to shout, “I didn’t die! Don’t you understand the meaning of the day?” I’ve since softened my response and simply say, “You’re welcome.”

At some point along the way I came to understand that the average citizen doesn’t have any sense of the true meaning of Memorial Day. And why would they? Although we’re a nation constantly at war, we have not used conscripted military members since the Vietnam War. Our all-volunteer force has removed the burden of fighting wars from the general populace and the citizenry as a whole doesn’t collectively live the reality of loved ones called up and sent to die (as happened, for example, in World War II). While today we collectively bear the monetary costs of caring for and treating wounded soldiers, we now have a couple of generations who’ve seen citizens volunteer to serve but who haven’t themselves been subject to being drafted.

It seems that today most of what the populace knows about military service comes from what they see at sporting events or in other settings where the military advertises and promotes its mission.  We’ve fought fifteen years of war but largely go about our lives as if it’s not really happening. And I think that’s part of why citizens have been conditioned to immediately say, “thank you for your service” when encountering a veteran. I’m not trying to make this a political post but I do think it’s important to note that, on the whole, the populace doesn’t have a reference point to truly understand Memorial Day. Because collectively the nation does not bear the immediate cost of losing loved ones to war unless that loved one volunteered to serve. We are a nation constantly at war without living daily the language and personal consequences of war.

Memorial Day is not the day for the “thank you for your service” sentiment to living veterans. It’s the holiday to remember our war dead. And yet, as with my grandfather, I too will stretch the holiday to fit my needs. I’ve lost former military friends and colleagues who died while in uniform due to military plane crashes, terrorist attacks, and war. But I’ve also lost former military friends and colleagues who weren’t in uniform when killed, for example, in terrorist attacks and a mass shooting.

My grandfather and others mentioned above don’t fit precisely into the Memorial Day definition. But I will remember all of them and say a prayer of thanks and hope for their souls. And I will probably remember my parents at the same time, and others who have slipped from this earth. Because at our core I think we humans have a longing and grief for all who’ve gone before us, whether they served in the military or not, and a day called Memorial Day triggers the overall remembering response in our hearts.

And this year, if somebody thanks me for my service, or remembers someone outside the holiday’s definition, I will simply acknowledge the sentiment. And I will quietly pray that war will cease, and that leaders who think war is always the answer will have their hearts softened, and that mercy and goodness will follow all of us. I will pray for peace on earth.

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