What Memorial Day Means to Me

Memorial Day celebrates all those military men and women who gave their lives for our country. To me, however, it also includes civil servants such as police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and others who have died in government service. It should also be about anyone who fought in our many wars and came home but left part of their soul on the battlefield.

Some veterans lead normal lives on the outside while suffering on the inside. Others suffer visibly like Mike, whom I sometimes see outside the grocery store sitting quietly against a wall, hoping someone will give him money or food. I first met Mike on a Good Friday. I didn’t know he was a veteran then, and I gave him an Easter egg with some money in it. Three years later, he still occasionally takes up his post at the store, and when I see him, I try to help with food or a bit of cash. Mike, an ex-marine, told me he lives in the woods about a mile from the store with several other veterans.

Two friends of mine were in the Army and fought in Vietnam. They led exemplary lives, and they married, had children, and worked hard, but behind closed doors, they suffered from nightmares and illness brought on by the war and Agent Orange. Both of them have Bronze Stars, and one also has a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. They saw a lot but rarely talk about it. Mike, my friends, and millions of others sacrificed a piece of themselves to serve.

After doing some research on Ancestry.com, I learned that two of my great grandfathers were at the Battle of Gettysburg. I cannot imagine the horror they experienced in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. What did these men see, and how did it affect their lives and the lives of their families—in this case, my family? I cannot be sure, but I believe they also left a piece of themselves on that battlefield. My great-grandmother’s father left his life on some Civil War battlefield. Had he lived, who knows what he might have accomplished? He and probably your ancestors who lost their lives or their souls might have had a profound effect on your life. No one will ever know.

I feel fortunate to have served in the U.S. Air Force and to have spent my two years in Vietnam in a darkroom processing film from reconnaissance airplanes. I was never in a gunfight, I never saw my buddies blown apart, and I never had to decide whether I should shoot another human being. Many were not so lucky. I will never forget an Army helicopter crewman I met in Saigon. He told me that when he first came to Vietnam, the Viet Cong would hide behind innocent villagers and shoot at the helicopters as they flew by. At first, he said, they would not shoot back for fear of hitting the civilians, but after a couple of crew members were killed, they began to shoot back. Imagine putting an 18- or 20-year-old kid in a position to make such a decision. I cannot fathom it. I hope he survived the war, was able to sort out those horrendous events, and had a fruitful and happy life.

Perhaps as you enjoy your barbecue and beer this Memorial Day, you can say a little silent prayer or give thanks to the Universe for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Please include those who left part of their soul on the battlefields, whether on foreign soil or on our streets.

Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.


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