After Memorial Day, a reflection

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Now that Memorial Day has passed, perhaps I can say a few things without causing too much trouble.

For the past three years, Peachtree City Councilman Mike King has taken tight-fisted control of our Memorial Day ceremony and I have helped him behind the scenes, under the radar. This has been an effort to refocus Memorial Day where it belongs, remembering those who did not come home alive after we sent them to war.

Mike has done a fine job, using just one speaker instead of what used to be a parade of speakers since too many people always want a shot at the microphone. And he focused on acknowledging local families who will always carry the depth of loss we can only imagine.

All across America, every Memorial Day counties and cities and towns hold patriotic celebrations made possible by the labors of well-meaning people, including veterans, who organize parades, patriotic speakers, flag-waving frenzies and carnival-like food and entertainment for adults and kids.

And they get it wrong.

These activities are misplaced, they belong on the 4th of July or Veterans Day. Memorial Day has a different purpose. Please indulge a two-part explanation.

Part one is about those of us who were in combat. It is not anything to aspire to. As I tell high school students when I speak to them about the Vietnam War, combat is a dirty, nasty, foul, unfair, unforgiving and deeply unsatisfying business of killing with brutally violent means, and the only place you will find glory in it is in Hollywood movies. It quickly steals your innocence and it changes you forever.

If you ask combat vets you will find they hate war, and they despise politicians who pull the trigger on hostilities with naivete when there were other choices, when there was no risk own their sons would be sent to fight.

Whether you were a grunt or a helicopter pilot like me, some days you had a bad feeling and just didn’t want to saddle up, but there was no choice and we didn’t talk about it. But we had an unspoken pledge to each other – I will remember you.

Years ago when my daughter Melanie was 12 or 13, we were driving near Washington, D.C., and only had time for a short stop. She had never been to Washington and I wanted to give her a chance to see a couple things quickly and I let her choose. She said she wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. I thought to myself, thank goodness they are close together and I was proud of her for wanting to see the compelling memorial of my war.

As we drove I told her to turn off the radio and listen up – I wanted her to be serious for a little while – and said I wanted to explain before we get there about The Wall at the Vietnam Memorial. She listened and waited while I organized my thoughts.

I asked her, “When the parents of a deployed soldier receive word their son has been killed, that might be the worst day of their life. How long do you think it takes them to get over that?”

She thought for a moment, then she said, “Never!”

I was proud of her and said, “Exactly right. We can only imagine what it does to them, but eventually, they do the same things guys in combat do when bad things happen. They push the anguish into their own secret box deep in their gut and close the lid tight so they can go on with what they must do.”

She thought a moment in silence.

Then I continued, “But for the rest of their life, when they open the lid to their secret box, the sharp-edged heartbreak is still there, hidden away for a long time but just as fresh as yesterday when unwrapped.”

We rode in silence with our own thoughts for a moment, then I said I wanted to tell her about two of the names I would show her on the wall. I knew one of them better than the other, and I told her about his hopes and dreams. And then I told her how they both died at 21 years old.

In their case, it was not only violent but horrible, and I told her all the details, things I would never disclose to their family, which is why I am leaving out their names or any other clues here, and by this time I was blubbering like a baby while I drove. She didn’t know what to do so she awkwardly patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t cry, Dad!”

When I got myself under control, I told her, “See what happens when we raise the lid to our secret box? It’s always there waiting, it never goes away.”

I told her we would go to the Lincoln Memorial first, then to The Wall, and I said, ”When I show you their names on The Wall, you will remember some of what I told you about the terrible way they died, but you will never feel what I feel about it. That is a big part of the power of The Wall, it comes from what we carry inside if we were involved.”

And that is why the air is electric near The Wall as we approach and painful memories fly out of secret boxes, finally set loose to run free. For us it is a little like being in church, where we can talk to our dead brothers, tell them we will always remember and try to relieve the guilt that we lived through it.

I have sometimes shocked someone answering their question with, “I have no need of Memorial Day. I think of my dead brothers all the time.” And it’s true. Not quite every day, but close.

Part two is about the families. To measure their pain, take mine and multiply by some very large number.

An unexpected visit by a military casualty notification officer with a chaplain to make a death notification shatters lives that will never be put back together again.

Imagine a mother having to suddenly face the realization the baby she carried and nursed and taught to play and walk and poop in the potty is now dead, and her desperation to make a deal with God to take her instead is to no avail. Imagine the father who discovered he never really knew love until he had this son, played with him rough-and-tumble, taught him to throw a ball, catch with a mitt, ride a bike, try and try again to do something hard at first, a son who made him proud and now he is gone and will never return.

I never knew anyone who gave his life, but I did know some who lost their life doing their duty and struggling mightily to bring each other home alive, and every one of them wanted to live, to go home.

Their death was even more than the family’s loss of a son or brother or boyfriend or husband or father. It was the rest of a life not lived.

Many of them died very young and would never know what it means to fall in love with a woman, marry, have children and be amazed how much it changes you watching them grow up. All that was lost.

The family eventually had to cram their loss down into their secret box and close the lid tight so they could put one foot in front of the other to continue with life. But no matter how many years pass, some of them will die with a still-broken heart.

If you speak to anyone who served in casualty notification in the military, delivering the worst day in a family’s life with each notification, they will tell you it was the hardest thing they have ever done, and it changed them, too. Some of them can’t talk about it.

That is what Memorial Day is about, the unspeakable loss that is just words and numbers to most of us, but lives forever broken for the families.

That is why it is important to get Memorial Day right.

What can you do? Teach your children what it means and why. And if you had the rare opportunity to express your sorrow to a family whose loved one did not come home alive, even if you didn’t have the words to say what you felt, if you just sat with them a few minutes and quietly held a hand, you would be doing God’s work.

Thanks to Mike King for stepping up to get Memorial Day right in Peachtree City.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen.]