Americans and their Memorial Day

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If future historians have any brains, and I confess to having doubts, they might look back on this period in America as a stark example of how breathtakingly stupid a people can become when they are safe and comfortable. Those are my thoughts as, once again, I find myself disgusted in the run-up to Memorial Day.

If you polled the veterans our country once sent to war, you would find a great many of them feel an urge to slap the merchants using Memorial Day to advertise a big sale on mattresses, cars or other merchandise, as if Memorial Day is for selling leftover inventory. It doesn’t say much for the masses rushing to the sales, either.

I don’t really mind that Memorial Day weekend marks opening the pool for the summer, a picnic or BBQ or first visit to the lake in the boat. But every one of us should be setting aside a good portion of Memorial Day Monday to reflect on the families whose son – or daughter – came home in a flag-draped box.

While I am writing this just before Memorial Day and you are reading it after, I do know that many of you taking the trouble to read this will be attending a ceremony honoring those who lost their life doing their duty. But your numbers are being overwhelmed by the dummies who don’t give it even a passing thought.

What bothers me most, I suppose, is that so many Americans just don’t know. They are so self-absorbed, so disconnected from our military, so wrapped up in their iPhone and Facebook and the new American pastime of entitlement and victimhood, that they don’t realize what other Americans have sacrificed. Are sacrificing right now, today. For them.

It doesn’t help that the yo-yos occupying the White House have turned our military into a lab for social experiments, or that the bootlickers with stars on their shoulders in the Pentagon go along with the girly-men policies pulling teeth out of our Armed Forces as they implement with an iron fist the yo-yos’ new military priority of sensitivity.

It doesn’t help that the yo-yos, whether Republican or Democrat, get us involved in wars we should avoid, and then for public relations purposes withhold the overwhelming force required to win.

Just like long ago in Vietnam, amidst all the political stupidity that turns a winnable war into a meat-grinder that eats America’s young, our troops do their job well in combat, and sometimes come home in flag-draped coffins while the politicians and big-shots in the Pentagon keep their backsides covered, and while most Americans ignore them.

The lousy support of our troops fighting a war on our behalf first began when Gen. George Washington begged Congress for muskets, powder, ball, clothes, food and money to pay the men and received no response. But our leaders’ betrayal of the trust owed to our troops does not mitigate one iota the bottomless pain of families who lost someone they deeply loved.

When my daughter Melanie was 13 some years ago, she and I were on a road trip passing near Washington, D.C. I had told her we could stop for a little while, and I asked her to select two places she wanted to see since this would be her first visit. As we drove she told me she wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. Excellent choices, and they are conveniently close together.

As we drove, I wanted to explain the power of the Vietnam Memorial. I told her there are over 58,000 names etched in The Wall, but the story gets lost in numbers because every name represents a family’s broken heart.

I asked her, “When a mother and father are informed their son has been killed in a war, that may be the worst day of their life. How long do you think it takes for them to get over it?” After a moment’s thought Melanie said, “Never.”

Exactly right. Somewhere amidst the grief they find the strength to do the same thing that our troops do in combat when bad things happen — they push it down into a secret box deep inside them and close the lid tight so they can go on with life and do what they must do. But for the rest of their life, those painful memories are waiting to spring into action when the lid to their secret box is opened.

One of the guys in our coffee group at Mimi’s had a rough combat experience, but later back in the U.S. he had casualty notification duty. I’m leaving out his name for his own privacy, and if you asked him about casualty notification, he can’t talk about it.

Some years ago I read a piece written by a different man, an officer returning from combat duty in Vietnam and was assigned as a casualty notification officer. Typically the officer and a chaplain would visit the family without prior notice to tell them their son – or daughter – has been killed. His first notification was at a rural address far from the city, and the chaplain was not available, so he drove by himself, knowing it would not be an easy day.

Having difficulty finding the residence of the family I will call Jones, he stopped at the local small town post office to ask for directions, figuring surely they would know where the family lived in this sparsely populated community.

While he was receiving directions, the postal worker looked up as a couple came in the door and said, “Here’s Mr. and Mrs. Jones now!”

Mr. Jones, seeing the formally uniformed Army officer who was trying to find him, bent straight over and vomited. It took his wife an extra second or two to realize what was happening, then she fainted as the officer rushed to catch her.

The notification officer helped Mr. and Mrs. Jones collect themselves, helped them to their car, followed them to their home and stayed with them until other family arrived. He left to return to his office a changed man.

After some months of casualty notification, this officer contacted an influential general he knew in the Pentagon and told him, “Sir, you’ve got to get me out of here. Send me back to combat if you must but get me out of here. I can’t do this any more!”

If you are interested, there is a movie titled “Taking Chance.” In this movie actor Kevin Bacon plays the part of Marine Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Strobl. In this true story, a dead Marine, PFC Chance Phelps, is on his way home in a flag-draped coffin from Iraq and needs an escort.

While it is unusual for an officer of that rank to perform such escort duty, Lt. Col. Strobl maneuvered to get the escort assignment because Phelps was going to Strobl’s hometown, and he would be able to quickly visit family there. The story is how this casually-started journey changed Lt. Col. Strobl as he absorbed the reaction of Americans to the coffin of PFC Chance Phelps, and by meeting his family. If I could force every American to watch this film, I would.

I was thinking of casualty notification and casualty escort as I continued to drive toward Washington, D.C., and told Melanie about the power of The Wall at the Vietnam Memorial, that the names are in date of death sequence so you have to look up their name in a chart to find the wall panel, then search through the panel until it settles slowly on you there are so freaking many names, and every one is a painful story.

I told Melanie about two names on The Wall, Pete and Harry (last names intentionally withheld) and the violently gruesome way they died on the same day, in the same cockpit.

As I told her details I am sparing you, I had tears streaming down my face as I drove and she awkwardly patted my shoulder and told me not to cry. I explained to her that’s what happens when we open our secret box. I also told her I would show her Pete’s and Harry’s names on The Wall, and she might remember some of what I told her about them, but she will never feel what I feel about it, and that is the power of The Wall.

It comes within the visitors who have a connection to the loss, and as they approach, secret boxes fly open and painful memories are finally set loose to run free.

In February, my younger 14-year-old daughter Kristen went with her private school – The Bedford School in Fairburn – on a weeklong field trip to Washington, D.C. They did such a nice job, taking the kids to Mt. Vernon, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Marine Corps War Memorial which is the huge bronze of raising the flag atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima in WWII, the Vietnam Memorial, etc.

I told the principal, Ms. Allison Day, what I had said to Melanie about Pete and Harry and gave her the full names. The photo nearby is Allison helping Kristen take a penciled imprint of their names. Some day Kristen will understand better the value of bringing that home to me along with the photo.

These are the things Memorial Day is about. All over America towns hold celebratory parades and flag-waving events, but Memorial Day isn’t Veterans Day or the 4th of July and it certainly isn’t a day for selling trinkets.

It is a day for solemn remembrance of people who lost their life serving you and me. As a fellow veteran said to me in frustration, it isn’t a joyous occasion in which the oft-declared “Happy Memorial Day” is appropriate. It is not.

A couple of years ago I caused some turmoil when I told the Peachtree City Council we need to get the Memorial Day ceremony back to its intended purpose. Mike King on the City Council and I ended up restructuring the ceremony to focus on the fallen and Mike did a fine job in last year’s ceremony making sure the Memorial Day event did just that.

Mike will be leading the Peachtree City Memorial Day program again this year to make sure it focuses on the fallen while Bob Groves will be giving radio directions to the missing man formation flyover, and I will be in Canton speaking to a veteran’s group in that town.

My cynical guess is not much more than 10 percent of us take the time on Memorial Day to honor those who died serving our country, whether we get it just right or not.

I’ll be driving by the other 90 percent on my way up to Canton and back, and I wish I were wrong but I imagine most of them think of it as just a day off work.

I’m quite sure nothing is going to turn that around, which means I’ll have good reason to be pissed off again next Memorial Day.

[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City. He was a Cobra helicopter gunship pilot in the Vietnam War. His email is terry@garlock1.com.]