A Letter to Combat Veterans on Memorial Day

A Letter to Combat Veterans on Memorial Day
Andrew's smile, what we all miss and remember most.

Dear Combat Veteran,

As a combat veteran, particularly if you are still in uniform, but even if you simply wear the hat people are going to thank you for your service in honor of Memorial Day. You will probably spend at least part of the National Mattress Sale Day weekend at a military or patriotic event, standing in somber reflection of the true meaning of the day. You will feel you’re the only one.

There will probably be speeches by politicians and local luminaries to endure who feel compelled to thank all our fallen heroes, with special mention made of our police, fire fighters, EMS, all first responders, and depending on whom they are pandering to, possibly doctors, nurses and teachers, too. And you’ll grit your teeth.

“The Fallen” will sound like empty words and burn your ears as they drip from the mouths of those who have no idea what they really mean. For you, those two words aren’t an abstract concept.They aren’t a couple words said, or even thought of, just once a year.

They are faces and names, memories and tears more clear in your memory than what you ate for breakfast. And you’ll feel like they are being dishonored, brushed aside and of no real consequence because to those clueless civilians and politicians, even the well-meaning ones, they are just words.

Memorial Day, and all the days of sales ads on TV and banners and signs in every store are a reminder of how few get it, how few seem to care. Memorial Day is not the worst day of the year, but it is a close second. The first, worst day is when Memorial Day gained new, personal meaning for you. You may have several first, worst days.

As bad as it all seems, perhaps because my universe is almost exclusively peopled by active duty, veterans and Gold Stars, it does seem to be getting a little better. After nearly a decade and a half at war, it should. Maybe it is. At least I hope so.

What has changed is how I view Memorial Day. I don’t pretend even to myself that the country is suddenly going to wake up and everyone will understand, or remember if they ever even knew, what the day means. It is not Veteran’s Day. It is not Armed Forces Day. And it sure as hell is not just a long weekend or the unofficial start of summer and a free day to party.

It is the most expensive day of the year, paid for with the lives of those who loved this country so much, they willingly risked their own. For their country. For their families. For the brothers who became closer than any blood relative could ever imagine.

Yet so many just have no clue. To those for whom the words “The Fallen” is more than the current, sanitized term for those who have given their lives in battle against the enemies of our nation, we have a choice. We can be and are somber and reflective, but we can also celebrate. Yes, celebrate, and for the right reasons.

Memorial Day is when we, at least those of us who understand, remember and honor all of our Nation’s heroes. That other, first, worst day each year is the day to cry. To rage at the injustice, the unfairness, the capriciousness of Fate, to scream at the Universe, “You screwed up! It wasn’t supposed to be him!”. Sob, and even though it may be just a faint whisper in the deepest, most secret place of the heart you say, “It should have been me.”

Then comes the guilt because it wasn’t. Because of the weight of the responsibility for living life as best you can for the one who is gone. Because that weight is wrapped around you, constricting your chest not quite hard enough to stop the beating of the million pieces that were once your heart, you wish it had been you. That pain can only be endured for so long before you will do anything, make any bargain with God, the Devil, the bottle or the pill to just make it stop. But nothing works, nothing changes, your heart keeps beating in all its dismembered pieces. So you cry, it would have be better to have been me.

Even this is something you can choose to view differently, to think of in another way. If it had been you, then the one lost would be living with this unendurable pain. And because you love them, you can allow yourself to stop thinking it should have been me, to spare them this living nightmare that doesn’t end.

Those first worst days of the year are in some ways easier to endure because they’re private. On those first, worst days of the year, every store you go into, every time you turn on the TV or radio, you’re not blasted with banners and ads and announcements saying, “In honor of your worst day of the year, we’re offering savings up to 75% (while quantities last, conditions apply)”.

You, your loved ones, those who know the date and the meaning of your first worst day are the only ones who will recognize the significance. Those around you may not really understand, particularly when so many years or even decades have passed. They may not even be supportive at all. But at least you can remember in private.

For many, that first, worst day is bracketed by days or weeks of dread. It is coming up…it has been x number of years and x number of day since… . It is a constant, recurring thought on an endless playback loop. For too many, that personal reel plays relentlessly, every day of the year. But even for those who can’t turn off the mind-movie, Memorial Day can be different. It can actually be if not a happy day, a good day. It can even make that first, worst day a little easier to bear.

Memorial Day is and should be a day full of gratefulness expressed in celebration. Have that BBQ, that picnic, clap and cheer at the parade, smile, hug your friends, hug a stranger. Because you can. Because of their sacrifice. Because of the sacrifice of all of them.

On Memorial Day you are not quite as alone in your grief and your memories. Let the good memories come, even when the ones for whom the day is not personal would not understand the smile. They can’t understand the first, worst day of your life was from a time that was the best, worst part of your life. For all the pain and horror, there was also great beauty in the quiet moments when you were closer to your reason for Memorial Day being personal than you knew was possible to be to another living soul. You shared horrors and laughter, fears and loneliness, homesickness and a feeling of belonging those others will never understand. Celebrate that.

For all those reasons and a thousand more, celebrate Memorial Day. Let it be about honoring their sacrifice but also about the warmth indescribably deep in your being that comes from having lived those moments. Celebrate that you are one of the fortunate few for whom Memorial Day is personal, not because of what you lost but because you remember something so remarkable and rare. Celebrate there are not more for whom the day is personal.

All we are as a Nation, all have as a people, is because of the one who made Memorial Day personal for you, along with all those who fell before him. We pray there will be no more that join that particular brotherhood, but we know there will. There always will be more. Then pray that those who carry the memories of the next loss can learn to celebrate too.

Remember them and honor their sacrifice by celebrating the incredible fact that our country, for all its faults and flaws and forgetfulness of the lessons and prices of the past, still produces those we honor on Memorial Day. Remember them with respect and somber reflection, but also with wonder and joy that they did what they did, so we can do what we do.

When the inevitable happens and some well-meaning but clueless person sincerely and somberly shakes your hand, thanks you for your service and welcomes you home, be gracious. Say the name of the one who made Memorial Day personal for you, even if only in your heart. Accept the clueless but good intentions of those others, for those who aren’t here to accept their thanks themselves.

Gold Star Mother of
PFC Andrew Meari
KIA Afghanistan 11/1/10

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