On a long enough timeline, dying is something we all do. Some of us will go quietly in our sleep, surrounded by our loved ones and at the end of a long and fulfilling life. Others, in the chaos and horror of a battlefield a world away from the people we fight for. No matter your choices, your struggles, your triumphs, in the grand scope of eternity, death comes for us all.
Plenty of veterans will tell you that being in combat means being able to look death in the eye and smile. That might be true for some, but every one of the most battle hardened heroes I’ve ever met didn’t seem to act that way. I know a lot of people who have looked death in the eye just as that old adage claims, but they rarely recount a smile. The face of death, many of us come to learn over the years, isn’t some shrouded ethereal mystery… it’s an emptiness you can watch wash over the expression of the man you loved as your brother, as he slips away into the great hereafter.
It can be hard to explain what it’s like to look at the face of a friend that’s no longer there. All the important landmarks remain; the cheek bones, the nose, even a hint of a sarcastic smile… but something is missing. I distinctly recall knowing my friend was dead well before I got close enough to take his pulse. When I opened the door, I saw him there… but could feel that the room was empty, and so was he.
Memorial Day always comes with its fair share of articles written by veterans, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do to celebrate, trying to impart what this weekend means to that elusive “us” every veteran feels both a part of and secretly fears they aren’t hard enough, salty enough, or experienced enough to count themselves among. I can’t be sure, but my sense of Memorial Day might be a little different than how some other veterans feel… I’ve lost more close friends to suicide than I have to combat, some as recently as this year.
I honestly couldn’t tell you how many flags I’ve folded for lost heroes. I don’t know how many wives or mothers I’ve passed them to. I don’t remember the name of the little girl I presented a flag to in the pouring rain on a cold day in Massachusetts, or why exactly her father had decided to end his own life knowing he’d leave such a beautiful child behind to look me, some nobody, in the eyes with a strength I couldn’t reciprocate.
I don’t subscribe to the mindset many of my fellow veteran writers have when it comes to Memorial Day. I don’t ask that you spend it in quiet remembrance of the countless sacrificed lives that secured and shaped our way of life. I don’t expect you to spend your day off in mourning. The men and women we honor on Memorial Day gave their lives to secure each of us a chance to keep living ours. There will be plenty of us drinking alone in our basements after the barbecue pits have long grown cold, hiding the pain we pretend we don’t carry and missing our friends. That hurt is a burden we carry, and I wouldn’t ask that you try to hurt on my friend’s behalf. That was never the point of their sacrifice.
Instead, all I ask is that you take a moment in your festivities to be grateful for the peaceful lives we get to lead. Memorial Day isn’t an annual funeral, it’s a celebration of the sacrifice that built our nation. It’s a celebration of the men and women that fought for us while they lived. Honor them by living, by loving, and if you lost someone, by remembering… not by berating one another for celebrating the wrong way in your Facebook statuses.
Memorial Day is a chance for us to remember those we’ve lost, to honor their sacrifices, and to embrace the freedom that was their ultimate gift. They paid for our future by giving up their own. As far as I’m concerned, you should honor that sacrifice by enjoying every minute of it.
And please, if you’re struggling with feelings of loss and hurt, and think the only way out is to join those friends you’ve lost in the afterlife… stop and call a friend. You owe it to those we’ve lost to keep fighting. Honor them by living. Honor them by continuing the fight.
When I got word that the Marine Corps had decided to retire me, I got to work cleaning out my wall locker. I packed up the white gloves I wore as I folded so many flags, slid my cover back into its box, zipped up the bag that carried my dress blues, and I sat down on the floor. I knew my days of honoring the fallen from my place next to their caskets was over, and the weight of all that loss began to draw in on me.
I pulled out the little notebook I carried in my uniform, and jotted down a quick poem. I’ve never been a poet, but the words I wrote then feel as true to me today as they did five years ago:
There were no children crying today, in the green and stone covered fields.
There were no mothers biting back tears, no caskets being sealed.
There were no daughters without a dad, no sons who lost their mom.
There were no fathers grieving, no uncles keeping calm.
There are no flags to fold, or kin to present them to now,
But we haven’t run out of flags, and I haven’t forgotten how.”
Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps