*originally written Memorial Day 2013; updated Memorial Day 2019*
Regular followers of my wife’s blog have noticed that she has a soft spot for military men. This works out pretty well for me, being a proud US Navy Petty Officer First Class; we tend to define ourselves as fairly bad-ass, so that when we wake up in the morning and our feet hit the floor, the Devil himself winces. We think rather highly of ourselves, and it’s not entirely unearned.
My wife’s soft spot for military men usually results in a Memorial Day blog post that jerks tears from your eyes and turns your heart inside out. Kate’s understanding of the demands, of the sometimes overwhelming burden of military service is, truly, beyond compare. She understands the Cost, capital C.
I’m not as eloquent as she is. I never have been, and frankly don’t expect to ever be. I don’t have the tools or the vocabulary or the experience to lay out words in such heart-rending fashion. That skill, I am afraid, is beyond me. However, what I can do is speak about Memorial Day, and why I would submit that people should take a contemplative moment or two themselves; to remember those who have served, those who have lost and been lost, those who have stood at the front. Those rough souls have a unique perspective lacking in much of the populace, and it is that perspective I wish to provide. For what is Memorial Day if not a day of remembrance? Granted, it’s a day for family, a day for friends, for BBQ, for relaxation, for celebrating the start of summer.
However, the blunt fact is that the origin of Memorial Day is sacrifice.
Sacrifice of life, sacrifice of limb, sacrifice of peace and tranquility and sanity. It’s the sacrifice of everyone who has gone before, everyone who has stood nearest to that deep line in the sand (either literally or metaphorically) and calmly uttered, “This far, no further.”
So here I am with my soapbox. Not out of intent to shame, nor intent to incite guilt, nor attempts to tug at heart-strings, but with simple intent to provide perspective. It is the view from the Other Side.
I, as many hundreds of thousands of others, have lost. My father. A best friend. Shipmates. Partners. Strangers without names, and sometimes people I’ve only met once or twice.
My grandfather served in the U.S. Army Air Force, flying for multiple years over The Hump in WWII. He served honorably for his term, married late grandmother via letter (essentially), lived a full life, and he died of natural causes when I was a teenager. For him and his honorable service, I lift my glass.
My father served in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division. He was drafted into Vietnam, and served his time in that quietly freezing Hell known as Alaska. He served honorably for his term, and then was honorably discharged. My brother and I lost him almost nine years ago to natural causes. For him and his honorable service, I lift my glass.
Many years ago, while serving on a destroyer, my best friend hanged himself during the night. The reasons were asked. Hands were wrung. Everyone had an idea. I was one of the last people to speak with him – and the simple truth, from what I knew and without assigning blame, was that stress of his particular situation proved too much. The service can ask everything of you. Absolutely everything, and some can’t flex accordingly; and those, they tend to fall through the cracks waiting for help that never comes and the cost can be, in horrific fashion, fatal. For him and all the others lost in such a way, for their honorable service I lift my glass.
Like thousands of others, I’ve had friends die in service. It’s tough. Always. Not all of them were because of the service, I’ll admit. But a lot were. My shipmates and I have tried to save dying men, and unfortunately most of the time we failed. But therein lies the fundamental axiom of military service that all who take the oath must understand and accept; you give your all. Flat out. No brakes. Even if it appears hopeless, even if you’re so tired you can’t even breathe, you Give. Your. All. And for many, that includes their lives.
So……..here’s my point. If you know someone who’s serving, look them in the eyes, don’t say a word, and (symbolically, if you need to), raise a glass for their still being around. Because Memorial Day is a day to remember the honorable sacrifices of those who have died in service, and to grateful those those still with us. Yes, there is BBQ, a celebration of summer, and games and joy and delighted screams from children jumping into freezing pools. But the quiet truth behind the celebrations we enjoy on this long weekend is the fact that this day would not exist if not for sacrifices of those gone before. We stand, this Country stands, on the honor of those souls standing watch, near and far, who, when asked the cost they would be willing to pay, calmly replied, “Any and all.” I would not have them forgotten, and neither should you. I leave you with the immortal words of William Henley, as I see describing Those In Service:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
And as my beloved wife has mentioned in previous years, we will both take a moment on Memorial Day to raise a glass, and offer the toast: “To the fallen. Our Honored Dead.”
I admit I have a weakness for warriors, both in real life and in books. In real life I married a 6’2 sailor who boxes and sword-fights in his free time; between the pages of a book, I am drawn to Bernard Cornwell’s unapologetically alpha male soldiers and C.S. Forester’s moody naval captains. The men in my own books tend to be fighters: Mistress of Rome has a terse gladiator for a hero; Daughters of Rome has a valiant Praetorian Guard and an ex-rebel chieftan; Empress of the Seven Hills has a tough and foul-mouthed career legionary.
But as much we all like to sigh over warriors, it’s good to remember that the soldiers, sailors, and fighters of the world give up a lot for that gritty-but-glamorous image. Memorial Day is the day when we are supposed to remember that, but sometimes we forget–we’re too happy to have a three-day weekend complete with barbecues, beers, and baseball games. And that’s ok: fire up the grill, throw on some steaks, relish your long weekend. But take a moment to remember why.
Because all throughout history, no matter what era they serve in, warriors pay a price.
The nightmares. Sweating inside the wooden horse at Troy wondering if the Trojans are going to catch on and burn you alive; waking up in a cold sweat remembering that Saxon sword coming down at the Battle of Hastings; the hazy flashes of the bullets coming at you over a sand dune in Afghanistan. Bad dreams and broken sleep and apologizing to your wife at 3am because you thought she was that Union soldier coming at you with a bayonet, and you smacked her across the nose before you fully woke up. Bad dreams are a constant for warriors.
The schedule. Because whether you’re a knight with an oath to a French lord during the Hundred Years War or a Marine with a set of orders in hand, “I’m kinda busy right now” is not an excuse. You still have to pack up and head out to fight, whether your kid has a Disney-themed birthday party that morning, your daughter is getting betrothed to a wool merchant that afternoon, or your castle is under siege that night. The schedule for warriors is harsh, and always has been.
The stress. Not just on warriors but on their families–medieval wives wondering if their husbands are ever coming home from Crusade; Army wives standing frozen as the doorbell rings, wondering if this time they’ll be looking at a military chaplain with a somber expression and some very bad news. Stress on the warriors themselves: the hours are long and grueling whether you’re marching through Vietnamese jungles or standing watch on a Viking longship, the food sucks whether it’s cooked over a legionary campfire in Parthia or comes from a WWI mess hall; and whether the letters from home arrive on horseback or via email, there are never enough of them.
These are the things warriors deal with, for the most part stoically. These are the things to remember on Memorial Day–not to mention the dead of all wars past and present, the men and women who struggled with the stress and the schedule and the nightmares as best they could, and went home in a box anyway.
My husband and I spent our last Memorial Day apart–he was deployed very far away from me, and over the last seven months we’d had probably fifteen total days together. We’re luckier this year: we’ve got fried chicken crisping on the stove, and the Sox game on in the background, and nothing to do all day but talk, laugh, and enjoy our long weekend. But no matter where we are on Memorial Day, we always take a moment to remember what this day really means, and drink one quiet toast:
“To all the fallen–our honored dead.”
Fire up the grill; it’s Memorial Day. Baseball games, beautiful weather, rippling flags, hot barbecue, and a three-day weekend; all good things. But few of us bother to think much anymore about why we get this day off.
Last year on this day, I posted my own tribute here about what Memorial Day really means and why it was created: in memory for those who have died in the nation’s wars. I’m putting that post back up today but with an addition. Memorial Day means more to me than it did even just last year. I have a husband in the Navy, and last year we got to spend Memorial Day together. We grilled steaks in the backyard, watched the Red Sox whomp the Royals, and drank a quiet toast in honor of the dead. This year, I celebrate Memorial Day alone, because my husband is very far away.
Memorial Day was originally created to honor the fallen servicemen and women of the United States, but I like to remember the fallen throughout history, whether they lived in the US or not. Greek soldiers sweating inside the wooden horse at Troy. Julius Caesar’s legions facing off against a narrow-eyed Vercingetorix at Alesia. Britons lining up in shield-walls, trying to put a halt to the Saxon invasion. English archers halting the most renowned army in all chivalry with a few showers of arrows at Agincourt. Farmboy sharpshooters hunting British soldiers through the marshes in the American Revolution. Germans and British curling up in the mud of World War I’s trenches, shielding their ears from the shells and their eyes from the mustard gas. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto flinging themselves up against Nazi tanks. Warriors today, in deserts and in jungles, on the sea and in the air.
Even more than the fallen, I think of those the fallen have left behind through history. It’s an iconic image, one that transcends time, place, or century: women waving their men off to war. Sometimes this was a chosen way of life: the Viking wives whose husbands went off cheerfully on seasonal raiding parties, and returned with longships filled with loot. Sometimes the fight in question was a desperate measure: Gauls forming last-ditch armies to keep the invading Roman legions from burning their homes and enslaving their families. And of course it isn’t always men to do the fighting. Plenty of French mothers during World War II worried for daughters who went to blow up Gestapo officers in the French resistance, and plenty of husbands today sit at home praying for wives piloting helicopters over sand dunes. Regardless of whether the left-behind were Highland wives or the mothers of knights, children of legionaries or husbands of Navy Seals, they all have one thing in common: the same sickening disbelief when prayers go unanswered and no one comes home.
That too has changed through the centuries. A medieval wife might be separated from her crusading husband for years, never getting a single scrap of news until finally some shame-faced companion brings her husband’s dried-up heart home in a box. So much easier to transport from the Holy Land, you see. Mothers of sons abroad fighting Napoleon got letters arriving weeks or months late. World War I widows sometimes didn’t even get the certainty of death, just a mumbled “Missing Presumed Dead,” which translates to “Pieces Too Small For Identification.” And anyone with a spouse in today’s military who opens the door to find two somber uniformed men on the doorstep knows that they’re in for a very bad announcement.
I’ve had a chance to think about that knock on the door every day for the past six months, when my husband left on deployment for a very dangerous part of the world. After half a year apart, we had exactly fifteen days together before he left for another three months (thankfully to a place much less dangerous). We won’t be spending Memorial Day together this year. He’ll grill steaks on his end; I’ll grill steaks on mine. Maybe we’ll watch the ball game on our respective TVs, and yell in mutual excitement down the phone at each other when David Ortiz gets a home run. And we will definitely drink our standard Memorial Day toast, even though separated by a few thousand miles:
To all the fallen–our honored dead.