“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, and no future.”
We rise and fall as one people, one nation. Barack Obama said that once. I won’t get into the man’s politics today. That is a piece for another day. Disagree with the man as I have and likely will continue to do as long as I am taking up oxygen, I veritably agree with this statement. Not just a little, but wholeheartedly. The messenger may not be ideal. The message however, is spot on.
We are only as strong as the weakest link. It was ingrained and hammered into our psyche in the military, and it rings more true than ever in my best approximation, today. It rings true for our country. For who “we” are. Like it or not, we are one people. We share (at least we should) bonds of common interest, language, family, and societal norms. We have our own culture. We have our own foods. We have our own liquor. Our own way of dating, dancing, and playing music. We have our own way to raise a family. We have taken the best of all of our heritage whether we be black, white, Hispanic, or Asian, and threw it all into a big stew to make it our own. We are all one people. Americans. Although today, it certainly is not appearing that way even to the untrained eye.
Sometimes I look around, and I look at what goes on in this country, and I see nothing worth liking. Nothing that instills pride, nothing to show off to the neighbors.
The title of this piece is Unpopular Opinions on Memorial Day. That would present what those of us in law enforcement call a “clue” that I am going to say some things that no one may want to hear. I can definitely confirm that for you. If you do not want to read unvarnished and unfiltered truth, if you do not want to hear something that may arouse strong feelings one way or another, then change the channel. There will be zero consideration for hurt feelings today. I am going to say what needs to be said, not necessarily what I want to say. If you are still with me, here goes.
I HATE Memorial Day. You heard me correctly. I hate it. Although, my reasons for hating it, you may find yourself in agreement with; the further I continue on. This is quite a bold statement. I am aware of it. I understand the gravity. Why do I hate it though you might ask? Well, lean back, settle in. I am about to tell you why.
My father never told me much about his experience in Vietnam when I was younger. The one or two bits that he did tell me, were absolutely heartbreaking. I knew that my Dad was a Marine almost from my earliest recollections of childhood. I would often sneak into his closet and peek at his old fatigues and his dress uniform. It was probably the coolest thing I had ever seen at that point. Something about his globe and anchor insignias mesmerized me. Later on as I did more snooping, I found my Dad’s Purple Heart. When I asked him what it was for and what it was, he simple said it was something the Marine Corps gave him. When I got a little older and realized exactly what they give out Purple Hearts for, I asked him again. Annoyed, he said that he had “been injured” but that everything turned out okay.
Later on still, after I had been in school for a while and learned about the Vietnam War, I asked yet again. Even more annoyed, he said, “Let me show you something”. He then showed me my late Grandfather’s Bronze Star. Not only that, he allowed me to hold it. He gave me a brief synopsis of my Grandfather’s exploits, and then returned the medal to its rightful place. In all of that time, he refused to discuss what I was so insistent to talk about. Him. HIS Purple Heart. HIS experience. My Dad was and is still, a true Marine, a true military man of the greatest generations. Selfless service, silent, stoic. He would never take any credit for himself even in later years. He only spoke of his unit, the bonds he held with them, and of course the commanding officers and NCO’s that he really disliked in a special way. He was the consummate military professional. He saw himself as just part of the whole. That is a quality I learned from him that I will never be able to repay.
I won’t discuss my Father’s experiences here, of what I know. It is not my story to tell and I do not have his permission. What I do know, is that I have only seen my Father cry two times in my entire life. Having a couple of squirters escape the corners of your eyes does NOT count in my opinion. What I am talking about is actual crying. I mean, weeping. Like I said, twice. Twice in seventy-plus years. It is an accomplishment of epic proportions when you think about it. I digress. Once, was when he learned his old partner had committed suicide? Two, was when he finally told my brother and I the story of his battle buddy dying in front of him. His battle buddy, who I will call Johnny for these purposes, had his head blown half way off, and my Dad and his platoon mates comforted him and talked him down into his last breath of life. Seeing my Dad’s pain and anguish, that he never showed to anyone, being the toughest man still that I have ever met on this planet, seeing with my own eyes that even the strongest metal bends, well, it was like a revelation. Not only that, but I finally got some insight into who my Dad really was. There were things that I had never understood before about him, but at that moment I began to know why. I began to have more empathy for my Dad. I realized he feels pain and sadness and hurt just like anyone else. He sheds tears like the rest of us. Though he is as tough as a rattlesnake in the middle of a West Texas drought, he is not without humanity at all. It made me appreciate my Dad and respect him in a way I never had before. It was one of the most humbling experiences of becoming a young man, and it fostered a much deeper love for him.
It is not much unlike my own walk through life. It is funny how fathers and sons can walk such similar paths. I do not feel like sharing on that today. This is not my day. This day is for the fallen. Did I know any of the fallen? I will leave it at a simple yes. I have my own internal injuries and perhaps I will discuss them another day. I still have my larger point to get to.
One tradition I have, is every Memorial Day I either text or call my good friend, that I will call Steve. I always text him the same thing, something we came up with one night at dinner and we were swapping old war stories. Steve was Army 2nd Cavalry during the siege of Sadr City, Iraq. One of the bloodiest conflicts of the Iraq War. He has far more internal scars than most. Steve endured horrors that I would be pressed to fathom. Anyway, the text is always the same.
“I don’t believe in a Happy Memorial Day. But, for our brothers, for our friends, may they never be forgotten”.
Steve always replies the same, “Amen. May they never be forgotten”.
I think of my Father, my two Grandfathers, everyone I served with, everyone I served with that got their ass blown up from here to kingdom come and barely made it home alive. Everyone that didn’t make it home. My own friends that didn’t make it home. My Dad’s friends. My dear friend Steve and the war that he fights inside himself every day. I think of all the fallen, I wonder why we absolutely have a need for Memorial Day. Yes, I hate it.
I spent my holiday weekend not celebrating, as I never do. To me, it is shameful to celebrate Memorial Day. I spent my weekend at three different events to honor our fallen friends. I attended a wreath laying, a flag laying, and a 21 gun salute ceremony. Oddly, it was something that made me feel close to my brothers once again. It was the thing I had been searching for to satiate the pain I feel. Giving back, felt like giving not only to them, but giving back a little piece of myself, if that makes any sense.
Why do I hate Memorial Day? Because I see how sparse these ceremonies are on Memorial Day. I see no one giving back. I see those that volunteer for a solemn occasion, not show up. I see people who don’t even know the different between Veterans Day and Memorial Day. I see no silent reflection at all. I see people with their beaches, their BBQ’s, their boats, their jet skis, their fishing poles, their dog Frisbees, and on and on and on. I see no appreciation for the fallen at all, and definitely no memorializing. Frankly, it makes me sick.
Look, I understand time with the family. I get all of that. I think spending your holiday weekend with your family is great. What I am saying, is that if it was YOUR dad, brother, sister, cousin, unit-mate, Grandfather, best friend, or anyone else close to you that got ripped into pieces by an IED or mortar fire, if it was YOU that was directly affected like we all are, then maybe you might have a more substantial appreciation for Memorial Day. For the fallen. For the selfless protectors of this great country. Maybe then, you might get it.
I hate Memorial Day. I always will. I hate how so many millions of people piss on the memory of my friends by their actions. But, I suppose it doesn’t matter. I and mine will hold the line. We will guard the memory of all of our fallen, come whatever may.
This piece is dedicated to my dear friend Staff Sergeant Steve Burkhead (US Army), my Father who I will identify only as a decorated Marine Corporal, and to a hard-charging Security Forces troop who we lost at the young age of 22 to enemy small arms fire. I will see you again someday my brother. But, not yet.
“Greater love hath no man that this, that he would lay down his own life for his friends”