When I was a kid, Memorial Day had a very specific meaning for me. Our town had a very large parade, one that half the community seemed to be a part of. The other half lined the streets to watch and cheer. The local high school and middle school bands marched. The little league teams marched. The boy scouts and girl scouts marched or were carried in the back of someone's pickup truck. Veterans groups, bagpipers, the local National Guard unit, firefighters and EMTs blaring their sirens, minor beauty pageant winners, and our mayor all took part in this annual event. At the end, there would be a ceremony in our largest park, where a high school band played, prayers were said, and tribute would be paid to the fallen.
After the ceremony, families picked up their children who participated. My family and another usually had a small barbecue together in the park. The kids ran off and played on the playground or in the woods while the adults grilled, cut the watermelon, and set up the potato salad. In the Northeast, the weather was finally warm, school would let out in a few weeks, and it would truly feel like the first weekend of freedom.
My parents would chide me, occasionally. The day was about people who died defending our nation, they'd remind me, not about running around on a playground screaming. It all seemed very distant to a kid growing up in the 1990s, whose only memory of war was a vague recollection of worry as her parents watched the evening news during the Persian Gulf War.
I grew up. I joined the Army. It was the height of Iraq, and Afghanistan troop numbers were beginning to rise as well. I wish I could say I joined for the noblest of reasons, but much of it was for personal reasons: to get out of my dead-end life track, to have a job with health care, to see the world a bit, to do a job that actually seemed meaningful, rather than the retail and service industry options typically available to a college drop-out.
I stayed in the Army because of the people I lost.
The first time you deploy to a war zone, you're nervous but not scared, because there's that little part of you leftover from your invincible teen years that thinks nothing bad could possibly happen to you.
The second time you deploy to a war zone, you're scared, because you know exactly what bad things can happen. And you know that dying is not the worst.
The third time you deploy to a war zone, you're resigned. Because you know what's coming, and that you can't stop it.
Memorial Day no longer means picnics, concerts, and parades for me, even though my town has these things.
Memorial Day is now filled with faces. The face of a gate guard I barely knew, killed instantly by a rocket attack. The face of his friend, who stood next to him, who survived but lost his leg. The face of a friend who died trying to dismantle an IED. The face of his wife at our unit's memorial dedication ceremony after we got back. The face of the chaplain who's sermon I hated, who then died in a massive explosion just one day later as he went to go visit troops at bases too small to have a chaplain of their own. The face of a friend who made it through a deployment, only to die weeks after getting back in a senseless drinking and driving incident. The face of a friend who left the military, took a civilian job, only to shoot himself in the head two years later.
Memorial Day means a sense of personal failure. I wonder if I could have done better, could have helped save some of those lives, or kept them from getting close to death in the first place.
No one I know in the military deals with loss well.
I once attended a New Year's Eve party populated almost entirely by soldiers. Midnight came, fireworks went off, and the host broke down in the middle of the living room, sobbing for a friend he'd lost. That breakdown was unusual - he was surrounded by support when it happened.
There's a trend, among some, to lecture that Memorial Day is for the dead, not the living. It's a well-meant trend, but misguided.
If I've learned one thing from my time in the Army, it's that war doesn't take it's only casualties on the battlefield. It follows you home, where it continues to fight you.
Memorial Day means different things to me now. It's a day to remind this country of the people who died fighting a war the public now mostly ignores. But it's also a day to remind this country of the debt it owes to those who make it out of the battlefield, but are still casualties. While veterans commit suicide after faulty or absent treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, while people who try to implement more timely treatment get demoted for daring to speak up, Memorial Day becomes a day to fight for better treatment for veterans, so that I don't have more faces to add to my list.
Memorial Day is still a day of beaches, picnics, barbecues, parades, concerts, and retail sales for most of the nation. I'm not even convinced that it shouldn't be that way. I can't think of a single person I've lost who would be mad about children watching a parade, eating hamburgers and watermelon, and screaming on a playground.
So enjoy all these things. But, please: also remember. Remember those who died, and also remember the living- and the lives we can still save.
[Image source: www.arlingtoncemetary.net]