Letter to the Editor: Memorial Day

Memorial Day is now known mainly for its holiday sales and the beginning of summer. A much smaller cross-section of Americans go to places such as Laurel Land Cemetery in Dallas for remembrances, and that’s a shame.

Even with servicemen and women still in combat, still in hostile environments, still in hazardous situations, deployed to about 150 countries around the world; our country still does not have the military connection it had in the last century.

I came across the following article several years ago, used it as part of a speech I gave one Veterans Day and submit it now for your reading. I have no memory of where I saw it printed but I wish I knew the Captain’s name.

Name: A CPT in Ft. Hood
Posting Date: 10/12/2006
Stationed in: Texas
Hometown: Texas

A few days ago, Vice President Cheney came to Ft. Hood and addressed members of the community and the post, on the eve of the 1st Cavalry Division’s return to Iraq. The Vice President was surrounded by Purple Heart winners and those who had earned Bronze Stars with valor or higher medals. That was, at least, the initial qualification given to be able to stand behind the Vice President. The cameras were all there, and I have no doubt that the public will see the Vice President and the soldiers. However, I was not there to hear the Vice President’s speech, whatever it was. Instead, a fellow captain buddy of mine and I were across post, at the rear detachment headquarters of a 4th ID brigade. I helped him in his duties as the summary court martial officer as he inventoried and loaded up a 23-year-old soldier’s personal effects for shipment to her family. As we stood there, looking at three cardboard boxes and a metal futon that comprised the totality of what she owned, many things struck us.

It was a sad experience for us. While we both lost soldiers during our first tour in Iraq, we did not know this soldier, but felt as if we did. It seemed somehow wrong, to be packing up a stranger’s goods, not because of anything extraordinary we found, but because of how extremely ordinary everything was. She had a cheap television, a small microwave, some DVDs bought from the PX, a paperback book or two, a few pairs of shoes, a clock radio, and a plastic-drawered dresser full of clothes. We wondered, as we watched the movers photocopy my buddy’s inventory of her meager possessions before taping shut the boxes that the soldier’s father and mother would have to open in a few days, whether it would scare or reassure Americans to see this.

We wondered if it would make people a little less easy about glibly “supporting our troops” if they knew that this 23-year-old woman didn’t leave behind copies of the Constitution, books on warfare, or even an American flag. She didn’t have any pictures of her standing in front of Old Glory or even any inspirational posters extolling patriotism, valor, and the like. She left behind shoes and a television. She was a normal American, or could have been, had she not been killed in Iraq. She didn’t drape herself in the flag in life; we have draped her in death. She could have been anything; she was a soldier, but she never got the chance to be a wife or a mother, never got the chance to pursue whatever interests she may have wanted to when she returned from the Middle East. She loved and laughed just like the rest of us, but she is gone from us now. It is too easy to say “She was a soldier and gave her life doing what soldiers do,” but it is a hard thing to say when you stand there and watch what little she left packed up for a grieving family.

I fear too many Americans think of soldiers without truly thinking of them as people — they may be soldiers, but they are so much more. They are soldiers now, but may not always be — they will become musicians, and teachers, and businessmen, and journalists, and car salesmen. The difference is, they are willing to die to protect those other Americans who are musicians, teachers, businessmen, journalists, and car salesmen before they go and join their ranks.

As my buddy and I thought and talked about all of this, we wondered if the press would come away from the politics of it all, and perhaps come to the quiet rear detachment where senior NCOs and soldiers soberly watched yet another young American’s effects be quietly packed and shipped to yet another grieving family. We wondered if the Vice President would step away from the podium and see soldiers doing their duty, trying to help one of their own who died doing her duty as best they knew how.

Most of all though, we wondered about our society at large. We wondered if they could grasp that this 23-year-old soldier who had given her life for them left behind only shoes and a television. It got us thinking about what separates a soldier and society. Finally, we figured it out. What is a soldier? A soldier is someone who leaves behind in death the very things most of us spend our entire lives trying to acquire.

In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.