Last week I wrote about enjoying the “bonus years” I’ve had since surviving an aircraft crash more than a quarter century ago. This week I’ll write about, and hope you’ll think about, those who never got a second chance – never got to enjoy the gravy.
Though congress made it a three-day weekend in 1971, Memorial Day is nevertheless still formally a day to remember those who fell in the service of our country, and specifically those who fell during time of war.
Since the Vietnam War, service in the U.S. military has been a volunteer affair. For more than 35 years now, those who have served have had to make the decision on their own, and then have had to voluntarily jump through a bunch of tough hoops to even be allowed to wear the uniform. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. There are good and valid reasons to field either a conscript or a volunteer force. One thing the volunteer force seems to have done, however, is to distance most Americans from their military.
Perhaps this is why so many folks think of Memorial Day in terms of time off from work, rather than as an opportunity to honor and think about the sacrifice of the relatively few for the overwhelmingly many.
For those who served and survived, though, Memorial Day is much more than a holiday. For many of us, it is a time of reflection, a time to brush cobwebs away from painful memories and to think about and honor our fallen comrades.
As I write these words I think of two men in particular, the first and last men I served with who were killed in combat. The memories I have of their last hours and moments, of the nature of their deaths, are sharp and wrenching. I don’t like to think of those times, because they are shot through with a heavy dose of survivor’s guilt. Yet I must remember, I must think of those awful moments, for I must honor the lives and the sacrifice of those men. Neither was larger than life, neither a movie poster hero. Yet both fought to the very last breath, demonstrating a kind of courage which is remarkable and at the same time impossible to describe. To gain a visceral understanding of the ultimate sacrifice, unfortunately, you simply have to be there.
No one joins the U.S. Military with the intent to die in battle. In fact, the military go to great lengths to weed out the applicants who have a death wish. They are simply too selfish and too immature to be reliable, to be a team player, to guard the backs of their comrades.
No, those of us who make the rigorous cut expect and plan to survive. We know the risks, we can each of us calculate the odds. The odds, in the aggregate, are in our favor. But the risk is real, as each of us knows full well.
Regardless of the risk, each of us have determined that our country, the grand, wonderful idea of these United States of America, is worth the possibilities that the risk entails. We go into harms way as a service to our country and to our fellow citizens. Most of us survive. Some of us do not. The fallen are the real reason we celebrate Memorial Day. If you get the chance, perhaps you can take a few moments to reflect on the heroic nature of the sacrifices others have made so that you might enjoy the manifold blessings of life in America.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) “For the Fallen”