As another Memorial Day weekend came to a close, I was still reflecting on what the day meant to me and how I should be honoring the sacrifices made by so many. Whether in peacetime or war, life in the military takes an immeasurable toll on service members and their families. Service and sacrifice can’t be quantified or qualified by type, length, or location, but it can be given a value of what that service and sacrifice has left behind. I spent most of Memorial Day exchanging calls, texts, and emails with old friends and fellow veterans – reminiscing and telling the stories of the lives of those we lost.

In my dreams, I see their faces ageless and frozen in time. I recognize the smiles, but sadly, no words are spoken – I can’t hear them, and I can’t ask them. If I could ask them what would it be and what would they ask of me, those are the most frustrating questions. Instead, I’m left unanswered and left with an uneasy feeling that we all should be doing more. What is discussed on those calls and in those emails is how we can honor their legacy by fighting for those who need our help the most – surviving veterans.

We Continue To Lose Veterans Every Day

Every day, we lose veterans – to suicide, to disease, and to substance abuse. With an average of six thousand veteran suicides per year, it is the second leading cause of death for veterans under the age of 45. Veterans who served after September 11th have a suicide rate fifty percent higher than the US population, with rates exacerbated by traumatic brain injuries. Between 2000 and 2020, more than 460,000 servicemembers were diagnosed with TBI, and countless others have gone undiagnosed. Those statistics are as staggering as they are maddening – these are living veterans who will be listed in next year’s memorials.

What does it take to wake the nation up from this nightmarish loss of direction, purpose, and identity that so many of us feel? How quickly and efficiently have political minorities refocused not only our national priorities but also their own agendas above those who continue to serve and continue to sacrifice?

“How can we allow our veterans to fall so hard or let their oft silent cries for help go unheard”, those, I believe, would be the words spoken by my old friends who only visit in my sleep. They would ask me how. They would ask me why. They would weep at the sight of the thousands of veterans who are as invisible as they are – living but not alive – homeless, jobless, and suffering from untreated physical, mental, and emotional scars. To their questions, I would have no answers – only a promise to do more, to be better.

I often wonder about those with whom I served but never knew. Whether it was supporting an infantryman in the South, providing cover to a tank commander driving into a firefight, or flying escort next to a troop-carrying helicopter, what became of them? What are their lives like? What unasked questions come to their minds as this Memorial Day comes and goes? If I close my eyes, I can almost remember what it felt like on another Memorial Day almost twenty years ago.

0245L 30 May 2005 – 22 Miles West of Baghdad, Iraq:

I adjusted my night vision goggles as the US Army Blackhawk helicopter came into focus. I added power and I felt the immediate vibrations of the rotor blades in my feet and in my hands. The wail of the two turbine engines, just a few feet behind my seat, nearly drowned out the radio chatter flowing into my helmet. As I rolled out of the turn, I asked my wingman to confirm their position while I pushed the stick forward and accelerated to one hundred and forty knots. We disappeared into the night, trying to catch the Black Hawk Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) helicopter flying a few hundred feet in front of us.