Guest Blogger: A Navy Man Talks About Memorial Day
*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.”