To all those who have honorably worn this nation’s uniform, I understand why you don’t want to be thanked or even recognized on this, your most sacred day of the year. Truly, I admire and respect when veterans say, “Don’t thank me, thank those who didn’t come home”. It is a mark of your character.
I ask that you understand why civilians and some of us who certainly know what the day means do it anyway.
First, it is a positive step that civilians recognize that this holiday has any meaning beyond the unofficial start of summer and a three day weekend. Because so much of my world revolves around our military and veterans it is hard for me to tell, but it does seem that more and more people are acknowledging that this last Monday in May has a special meaning.
In recent years, I would stop watching the news, or really any TV, about three days to a week before Memorial Day and not tune back in until the Tuesday or Wednesday after the holiday. I found it necessary to do this for my sanity. And my blood pressure.
I would become so disgusted that every second commercial was for some Red, White and Blue Sale EXTRAVAGANZA! Come in and get the best prices of the year!, without ever a mention of what the day actually meant the sadness and malaise that are my expected normal at this time of the year would become overwhelming.
The talking heads on the news were no better, and actually worse. I’d watch as supposed journalists, people ostensibly aware of things like facts would routinely offer Memorial Day best wishes for all our armed forces, our emergency responders and everyone else they thought of mentioning. With this as the standard information being put out to the American public, it was no wonder that the majority of people did not know the real meaning of the day.
Worst of all were the speeches by politicians, both national and local. It was routine that they would offer the same message, made meaningless by inaccurately recognizing all veterans, all service members, all first responders, etc. The worst was when some glad-handing empty suit included teachers and doctors and nurses, calling them all heroes and worthy of mention on this day.
It would infuriate and astound me, wondering if they actually didn’t know the difference or were they just pandering to a specific group whom they were courting for votes. Then it hit me – last year was an election year. I guess they figured it was worth the risk of offending those to whom this day was sacred if it meant they could later point to the speech as proof of their support of some special interest group. Or, they were just that stupid and expected the voting public to be equally dumb.
This year, I’ve taken a different tack. At some point I had an epiphany about the American psyche. We are a fun-loving people, and reminding them this day is one of somber reflection and solemnity was not the way to get people to understand the meaning of the day. So, I wrote this piece, “Happy Memorial Day is a Choice”.
It was aimed at both the general public as well as my beloved Gold Stars and represented how I intended to approach this and future Memorial Day holidays. In short, I wanted to give people – myself included- permission to celebrate this weekend. Yes, remember what the day is about, understand the price of the freedoms you have, but enjoy those freedoms.
Had my son come home from war, he would have stood solemn and dignified offering a hand salute to his fallen brothers, then gone to crack a cold one. He would have toasted the lives lost and lives still to be lived. So, I swore to try to do as he would and celebrate what I have, what we all have in thanks for the sacrifices made on our behalf.
This message was brought poignantly home to me by a few Andrew’s friends who came out to the cemetery today. One was a battle buddy of his who was there but not on the patrol the day he was killed. Between our shared tears we laughed about how Andrew would react to us crying, “He’d tell me to stop my crying, stop being such a blubbering cry baby asshole and go have a beer”.
Two others came, (Vince Larsen and Ed West pictured above) with their wives and newborns, children who will grow up hearing about the great guy who would have been their best honorary Uncle. Moms Heather Larsen and Cassie Becht stood talking and laughing with a few shared tears too, with Adam Devine, James Larsen and Todd Franklin. This group were childhood friends of Andrew who though they may now be all grown up and responsible adults with jobs, families and homes, left the cemetery to go have a bbq and “…beer. Lots of beer to toast our brother. We can’t have a somber party for him, he’d kick all our asses.”
As I sat listening to the speeches today, I understood why civilians want to thank and honor our veterans, military, first responders and everyone else, though at today’s ceremony unlike years past at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery not one speaker so much as mentioned anyone other than our military, veterans and the fallen. The simple answer, beyond the fact that most Americans do not understand who Memorial Day is for, is that our youth-loving, forward looking culture is simply uncomfortable with death. And how do you thank someone who is no longer here anyway?
Several of the speakers, notably Governor Bruce Rauner, specifically mentioned Gold Star families as the visible reminders of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. But, there are not that many of us around. Sadly, the majority of the Gold Star parents of our Viet Nam generation have gone on to join their child. The widows, widowers and children of that generation of the fallen were not often publicly recognized when their grief was the most raw because of the cultural climate of the time. As a result, many who are Gold Stars from that previous conflict do not self-identify, though more and more are, to the benefit and great blessing of this newest generation to be handed the folded flag.
Since 9/11, though we have lost so many, too many, we still represent a fraction of a fraction of the population. Approximately 2.7 million have served since the day that changed the world with about 770,000 having seen combat; less than one percent of those who have directly faced the enemy have paid the ultimate price. Even if someone wanted to find a Gold Star to thank or recognize, they would be hard pressed to in this nation of over 320 million.
So, people turn to our military and veterans. There are many more of you than there are of us, a fact for which we are eternally grateful. They offer you their gratitude for their freedoms because they have no one else to whom they can offer their thanks. I am choosing to view this as a step in the right direction, that people are at least recognizing Memorial Day has something to with our military and our fallen.
Today, on Memorial Day, I too offer my thanks to our military and veterans. Not because I don’t know better, but because I do. I have been privileged to meet, talk to, laugh and cry with nearly every member of my son’s unit. I have and will continue to thank each and every one of them for doing the one thing I could not do, be with my son and watch over his body when he fell. There simply not enough words in this or any language to express my gratitude for what each of them did for my son.
It is in this same spirit that I thank all of our military and veterans. To each of you, particularly those who have been in combat and have held the broken bodies of your brothers, a thank you simply is not enough. They honored your shared oath with their lives but you honored them by being there, by being by their side, facing the same risks and dangers. And by coming home and telling their stories.
To all who have served, you also have my thanks. Every time you humbly decline what you feel is an undeserved “Thank you for your service”, you are honoring all those who are not here to receive that acknowledgement. I do understand many of you feel you were simply doing your job, what you were trained to do, swore oaths to do and doing anything less would dishonor the sacrifices of the many who did not come home. I do understand this.
Today, and any other day when I wear my Gold Star lapel button to publicly acknowledge my unwanted status, I stand and receive hugs, tears and condolences from many of you, our military and veterans. I know that when you look at me, you don’t see the mother of PFC Andrew Meari, or you don’t just see me; you also see the mothers of all those you lost. I stand in her place because she is not or cannot be here to accept your embrace. I stand here and offer to you what she cannot because she is not here, my heartfelt, deepest gratitude that you are here, that you came home. And I ask you to stand there and accept my and other’s thanks for your service, for those who are not here.
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