It was inevitable that coming from a family where every generation sent their young men off to serve their country, that Memorial Day was a special holiday around my house while I was growing up. Each Memorial Day my family would gather around a grill somewhere and celebrate the unofficial beginning of summer. However, we always took the time to honor those among us who went out into harm’s way in defense of our country. We remembered those that no longer walked amongst us whether they died on the battlefield or came home from their war to live long productive lives. We also celebrated those who were still with us.
A small gathering would usually form on the side of the picnic area where the veterans would talk quietly of heroic actions in lands far from home. Rarely, did they talk about their own part in history; rather they preferred sharing stories about their comrades in arms who did not come home from the war. I began to form a picture of what these guys were like. They were ordinary Joes who stepped up to the plate when it was time to. They were not fearless, but like any sane normal person, had a strong sense of self preservation, but the focus of that self preservation was not only on themselves but also on those in their company, platoon, flight or “general quarters” station. They had each other’s back and trusted each other every day with their lives.
My uncles served in both Europe and South Pacific during the Second World War. Some were soldiers following the first line of troops into France or Patton across North Africa and Italy. Some were sailors who fought on the crowded, dangerous flight decks of the aircraft carriers, or drove tractors clearing the tropical jungle off islands while trading pot shots with enemy snipers. It wasn’t glamorous, or glorious, it was hot sweaty, dangerous work, where any given second could have been their last. They came back from their experiences no longer boys bucking for excitement, but changed men who experience prepared them for the no nonsense task of building this great country during its biggest growth spurt in history. Truly, these men and the women that went to war with them or stayed at home to keep the fires burning in the factories and on the farms to supply the guys on the front line deserve the title that Tom Brokaw gave them; “The Greatest Generation.”
Left: Back in my Navy Days in Cherbourg France, June 1964, 20th anniversary of D-Day Vietnam was my war and my time to serve. I was fortunate in that I never had to face the enemy across a rice paddy. I was in the Navy and served all my active duty in the Second and Sixth Fleets facing down the Russian Navy during the cold war. Although I had my moments of excitement, I never was tested like the generation before me, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t lose shipmates and friends to the battlefield. I will always remember those whose names are in the wall just north of the Reflection Pond on the National Mall in Washington. It is a tough thing for me to visit the wall, or the smaller, traveling version of it, but I make myself do it whenever I can in honor of my friends.
Let me tell you about the heroes I knew, they were happy young men, but serious about their commitment to the service they were in and the protection of their country. They would not want us to sit around and cry over them nor would they want for us to make EVERY National holiday all about them. They would want us to live our lives in freedom, honor them on THEIR DAY and pass on the passion they had for their country to the next generation. I remember that sad time time during the Vietnam War when patriotism almost became a dirty word. Soldiers didn't come home to parades and their country’s gratitude. They came home to hatred, being spit at and being called names like “baby killer” and “murderer.” I remember our commander advising us not to wear our uniforms off base to avoid trouble. As today’s headlines still describe, we can't ignore that war time atrocities are committed by a handful in every war, but we have learned the lesson of not painting the entire force by their actions. Most serve honorably and fight for our freedom. Even the freedom to criticize. It truly warms my heart to see that at last, the veterans of the Vietnam War and the Korean War are being recognized for their service. As long as they are with us, it is not too late to say thank you. Just don’t be surprised if they have no way of saying “You’re Welcome”. Do it anyway, because, I can tell you that despite their silence, your thanks are appreciated.
So, as we celebrate Memorial Day, amongst all the cookouts and barbeques, as we unofficially welcome summer, let’s take a minute or so to remember our fallen service men and women on their day. That is all they ask. Oh MY!