FRIENDS AND VETERANS—AGAIN
TODAY IS MEMORIAL DAY IN AMERICA. Thousands of miles away in Belgium, however, young schoolchildren began their day at the Flanders Field cemetery, honoring the fallen American heroes from World War I who helped save their country at a desperate time in Belgian history. As is customary, they sang the Star Spangled Banner and placed small American flags next to Belgian ones in memory of those who died to preserve the liberty of this great nation.
It gives me pause to consider that we're nearly 100 years removed from the ‘Great War,’ yet small children in Belgium still take the time to learn our national anthem and pay respect to our nation for its sacrifice.
Last Memorial Day evening, a family friend named Eric — an 18 year young man who had just graduated from high school — shipped off to boot camp as a Marine. This August he goes to Afghanistan. With the world in turmoil, it pains me to think that his tour of duty will mean long days and months of hazardous duty in such an unforgiving terrain. “Thank God his mother has passed on,” I sometimes think, but in reality, he probably would not have enlisted had she not died three years ago. That makes it extra sad for me.
I am a child of Vietnam. As a teenager I listened to audiotapes mailed home by my brother Martin from DaNang and for the first time heard what bombs and mortar fire really sounded like. I heard my brother's voice—while desperately trying to convey calm—speed up, then slow down, then go silent as the sound effects of bullets and explosions and helicopters filled the void. I finally told him of this experence at my Dad's funeral a few years back, and for a time, at least, it seemed to bridge a gulf molded by differences in age, distance—and yes, war.
Perhaps as penance, I became very involved with Vietnam vets. I interviewed and befriended many who served there. . .and truth be told, most are still not entirely free. Many are haunted; drunk with dark images of sniper fire and eerie, ghostlike images appearing — and dying in the jungle before them. These nightmares, this PTSD, persist after all these years. . .and that is what makes me wince when I think of young Eric.
I am proud of him — obviously. I pray for him every day. I honor his selflessness and courage, but I wish I could protect him—as if he were one of my own. He is strong as an ox, and yet I pray he is protected from the psychic horror of war as well.
On this Memorial Day, while we honor all of the brave men and women who serve; all who fought and died in foreign wars, perhaps we should also ask, “what will we do to support Eric and others when they return home from war?” It is a vital question to ponder as a new generation of young men and women return from the trauma of war. For, we cannot simply drug them; numb them; expect them to forget. Increasingly, that is what we're doing... and it's not right.
If we are going to ask them to fight on our behalf, then our solutions must be more personal and meaningful than that. We can't just fly a flag, nor pat them on the back. We must commit to be with them for the long hall—whatever that takes. If it means more taxes in order to try behavioral therapy, then so be it. If it means bringing back the real GI Bill so that these heroes can start a new life with a free college education and a new home, then they should be afforded that. If it means volunteering to be with them — when they return with a mental or physical prosthetic—if it means any of this or more—we must do it. There can be no more copping out, by politicians, the VA, military leaders or psychiatrists.
There is nothing more important than our human capital—our young men and women. There is no excuse any longer. As a nation, we have asked them to do our bidding; as a nation we must share the sacrifice necessary to help make them whole—if we humanly can.
As a very young boy, I tried, unsuccessfully, to extract the meaning of war from my father, who served in the Army overseas during World War II. He resisted, time and again, looking rather distressed and puzzled by the notion that his youngest son — the second last of seven children — had this persistent curiosity about his time in Italy fighting the enemy. Being a Southerner by birth, Dad was always a private man, with little interest in divulging excessive emotion or grandiose stories. But after years of pestering, he finally told me some painful stories about his experiences in WWII.
He had been sobered by war, to be sure — and I suspect he knew that the questions I asked as a boy were important to my understanding of him as a father—and as a man. Later, as he saw the unconditional respect I paid to Vietnam vets... it made him proud.
So on this Memorial Day, I choose to give thanks to not only the veterans who suffered — and perhaps died in faraway lands, but to the new recruits like Eric who are bracing themselves to fight in the nightmare of war. We should also thank our friends, who despite political and cultural differences, despite being called out for their opposition to the Iraq War, have stood at dawn, young and old, year after year, to honor us.
That's what friends do.
Happy Memorial Day.
May God Bless us all with peace.