Monday, May 28, 2007

On Remembrance

Does anyone remember that today is the official observance of Memorial Day? How many have any recollection as to what it's about, other than sales, the beach, barbecue, the "first weekend of the summer" and the Indy 500?

Damned few, apparently.

Collectively, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

However, there'll be little shame shown; the only thing that there'll be less of is honor paid to the subjects of the holiday, which are veterans of this country's armed forces who've died in the line of duty. Secondarily, it's to honor those currently serving as well. Veterans Day was not originally called that; it was Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I. Now, it's supposed to be in honor of all veterans from all eras.

But back to the Memorial Day for members of our armed forces who died in the line of duty, and including members who served, while not dying in the line of duty, who are no longer with us. That's what they taught me in school, anyway; I still remember that. I'm also prompted by the memory that my grandfather, a World War I veteran, died on Memorial Day in 1971. Now it includes my father, who had twenty one years of active service in the Navy, including two tours in the Viet Nam area. Granted, he was a dentist & therefore a non-combatant, but that doesn't mean he wasn't in a position to get shot at & killed. He was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, and would go up in a plane as regulations required if he wanted to have "flight surgeon" status. It wasn't a matter of status, he did it because there was a pay bonus and he had a family back home. Fortunately, no MiG ever paid a visit while he was up there. He passed away several years ago, near Memorial Day.

I'll always remember the burial service for a lot of reasons, but one of them was the full military honors he received as he was interred in a lovely veterans section of the cemetery in which he lies. The playing of Taps, the rifle salute.... and then, they took the shells of the rounds fired for the salute, and wrapped them in the flag that had covered the coffin, and presented it to my mother. The attending commander of the detail (a woman, incidentally. My father would probably have found that a bit odd) then gave a short speech on behalf of the Commander in Chief, thanking her & the family for his service to our country. Simple, yet dignified and to the point. It also recognizes in this time of grieving that it isn't only veterans that sacrifice, but their families as well. For one lost in combat or otherwise in the line of duty, it's a life cut short; the ultimate price paid, which is supposed to be in defense of our country and our freedom. But even during peacetime, families are regularly uprooted, moved around, and sent along with the service member to new locations. Most of us who are children of a military family have no "home town", we've left our best friends behind multiple times only to have time and distance cause many of them to fade away, and we've changed school systems repeatedly. It's not an easy way to grow up.

Well, that's a price, too, and one that's most often ignored these days except when yet another death from Iraq is reported. In past years, it was primarily wives who found themselves having to take on the jobs of both parents when their husbands were on assignment or out at sea (this, of course, has greatly changed, but not in my parents' generation). Families of submariners might be out of direct contact with their service member for as long as eighteen months. Memorial Day is a day we should stop and pay honor to the families, too. Military spouses and children have always been a part of the service in their own way, being the most direct supporters of the individuals in the service, and going where the country has told them to go.

It's true that I've described a number of reasons why Memorial Day is more personal to me than a lot of people, but that is not the way it should be. We're all the beneficiaries of the sacrifices and the service, so how dare we take it so lightly? And yet, the newspaper today is full of sales flyers and blather about summer, and vacations, and the price of gas (which, incidentally, was $1.46 a gallon on January 20, 2001. You figure it out). I had to look on page three of the local section to find any mention of Memorial Day observances. There are no parades scheduled, no speeches, no large solemnities. No ceremonies at any of the national cemeteries in the area. No, in the two county area, there are exactly three things listed: A small memorial service held by this county's Veterans Council, another in the neighboring county held by the VFW, and one concert. And that's all. It gets more dismal: I took a drive up & down the eight-block-long street on which we live. I didn't count the actual number of houses, but it's around fifty or so. The number of houses, including mine, flying an American flag today:


That seems pretty representative of the prevailing attitude these days.

Don't misunderstand me, I am not a flag-waving, no-questions-asked ultraconservative who gives support blindly; quite the contrary. However, I do know when respect has been earned and should be paid. I am an opponent of the war in Iraq and no supporter of the man who started it under false pretenses. Nonetheless, not for one minute will I disregard the service and the price that has, is being, and is unfortunately will continue to be paid there by members of our military and their families. I also won't forget the number of innocent Iraqis who've died. Contrary to what the administration would have us believe, there are lots of innocents dying there. "Collateral damage", indeed; the term is vulgar and distasteful.

So, before I digress too much farther, as is my usual wont, Id ask of you to please take at least a few moments to remember those who've died in the line of duty for our country, those who served and were therefore always at risk, and the families left behind. It's not so much to ask, and this is supposed to be the day that we all do it together. As a nation, we've utterly failed in this capacity. If nothing else, think of what it would mean to the families in your community that have lost someone in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who have a loved one there and wake up every morning hoping to God not to have that knock on the door by an officer from their branch of the service bearing grim news. Can we not have the decency to demonstrate that we care? Or does the problem lie in the fact that we largely don't care? That's a point that I'd rather not give myself time to think about.

Instead, I'll think about my mother, who will travel to the local cemetery today for a visit, with perhaps some fresh flowers or something to plant. I'd go with her, but there's this 1,100 mile distance in between. She'll act as proxy for myself and my other siblings who are far removed. Thanks, Mom.

And thanks, Dad, and all the others who are the titular honorees of Memorial Day. Thanks to everyone who remembers and has done at least something (as simple as flying a flag that costs less than ten dollars, pole included) to show that they do.

To the rest of you, enjoy your long weekend.... and when July 4th rolls around, and you come out to have a good time once again on the day that we observe the founding of this country and the principles upon which it is supposed to rest, take a look back over your shoulder and feel a pang of regret that on the day that you should have remembered the people who paid the price to get those freedoms and keep them, that you let them down.

Taps hasn't been sounded yet, however; there's still a bit of the day left. Take a moment and remember, and do not take for granted the fact:

They never let you down.

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