I received a Memorial Day greeting from a friend and fellow veteran today. She put into words what I’ve been feeling all weekend, “Hard to ‘celebrate.’ We came back.”
Memorial Day always symbolized the beginning of ultimate freedom for me. Summertime! As a child I was finally free from study, and homework, and books, and curfews. In the summer I could stay out “until the streetlights [came] on” playing endless “neighborhood games” with my… well, neighbors. We played tag: Freeze Tag; T.V. Tag; Mother Hen; What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?; we also played Kickball, Sardines, Hide and Seek, Steal the Flag… there was no end to the games we reinvented and played all summer long. Memorial Day meant the opening of summer. It meant barbecues, neighborhood gatherings, family and friends, barbecues, the smell of chlorine from the neighborhood pool finally open after a long winter, the smell of charcoal briquettes burning on the grill next door, popsicles, watermelon, the propane grill fired up, campfires for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, barbecues, wet concrete from wet feet and running through sprinklers and hoses, freshly mown grass, and barbecues.
Those things are still there. And I still appreciate them. But now it’s different. It was different after I enlisted in the military; it was different after I went to war. Again. And again. And again. It’s everything that makes me want to put on a uniform again, and everything that makes me never want to put on a uniform again.
Last Memorial Day weekend we lost several members from our team in Afghanistan. A year later, I still find it hard to put into words. Here’s what I finally wrote home a few weeks after the event:
Memorial Day is a day set aside to honor the fallen soldiers who have paid
the ultimate price for the freedoms we enjoy. I have been fortunate to work
with some of the most amazing, professional, honorable men serving our
nation today. I have had the honor and pleasure of working with small teams
of Special Forces in different parts of Afghanistan. I have been impressed
almost daily with their devotion to the mission and the professional manner
in which they carry it out. That’s not to say we don’t have a lot of fun
together. It’s very much like a family. We tease each other a lot. We
play practical jokes on one another. We have disagreements. But at the end
of the day, we know we have one another’s backs. I trust these men with my
life. And they look out for me.
This Memorial Day weekend took on a new meaning for me when five were called
home from service and made the ultimate sacrifice…It’s been a rough time for all of us, but the team is pulling together, and supporting one another. It is difficult to express in words just what their losses mean.
Joe was a great leader. The guys gave him hell sometimes, but he handled it
well. He always led from the front. I miss his dry sense of humor and our
daily discussions of the environment.
Marty was an eternal optimist. I miss hearing him say, “I’ve got a good
feeling about this already.” He had so much going on, but was always
willing to help. I miss his smile and our daily banter.
Aaron was great. He was pretty new to the team. He was always willing to
indulge me in my desires to watch him work with Hunter. One day he put our
JTAC in the bite suit so I could see Hunter in action. I miss him.
Hunter was one of the few dogs I actually liked. He was so well-behaved and
excellent at his work. I miss walking to his kennel and having him press
himself against the gate so I could reach my hand in to pet him.
Zaki was the newest member of our team. He was very intelligent and
impressed me on that first mission that would also be his last. I miss the
conversations we’ll never have.
I know my friends want me to be happy and celebrate and enjoy the freedom they gave their lives to preserve. And I am, and I do. But there are times when my heart just needs to hurt for a while… and I need to miss them.
I spent several hours this weekend walking among the sacred dead at the Ft Leavenworth National Cemetery. I don’t personally know any who are interred there, but I felt at peace among them. It was as close as I could be to the grounds that house the earthly remains of those I was fortunate to serve alongside.
If you have an opportunity, take the time to visit a national cemetery. The grounds are well-kept, and the even rows of uniform headstones are impressive. The sheer number is astounding to see.
Sometimes I wish the entire world would stop and take notice for just a moment or two, and in quiet, peaceful silence, pay its respects to those who gave that “last full measure of devotion.” But it doesn’t. It continues moving. Memorial Day means so much more to me now because I knew these men who gave their lives in service of their country. But it isn’t just them. There have been so many. And it’s just as personal for their friends, their families, and their loved ones. They, too, deserve our respect, our honor, and our remembrance.
Please, this Memorial Day, and each hereafter, take some time to remember, because there are some who can never forget.
It is a rough weekend for many; particularly those who came back.
“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” ~Jose Narosky