Updated: May 30
Having never served in the military, it’s always been a world and a lifestyle I never understood, but have been fascinated by and admired. From the uniforms, to the language (everything’s an acronym – CO, PT, DoD, etc.,) to the awesomeness of the guns, tanks and fighter jets, it’s pretty badass. My father worked in the airline industry, and I loved to fly and loved all things associated with airplanes, so much so that sometimes we’d even go hang out on the perimeter road of the airport and watch the planes take off just for fun. Also, since we lived in Miami with the Homestead Air Force Base there, and he’d often take us to the Air Shows with the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds. I always loved it!
Growing up, though a proud American and Patriot, I never thought too much about what that really meant and how fortunate I was to be an American, particularly as a woman. Sure, I had a Russian pen pal and was always fascinated by those who lived in such a closed off Communist society like the Soviet Union, and I was scared when I found out we were going to war the first time in the Middle East, but apart from that, it wasn’t really on my radar, and the Gulf War was over almost as soon as it began, so beyond the initial shock, it wasn’t, for lack of a better term, a big deal.
I was young and not really cognizant enough to understand the tragedy of the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, and beyond small intermittent ‘wars’ like Grenada and Panama, we weren’t ‘at war’ in this country. We may have had operations in other countries, but the United States as a nation wasn’t at war. So while I’m proud to say my maternal grandfather and paternal great aunt were in the military, and both in theater in Europe in the Pacific, he as an oral surgeon with rank of Army Colonel, her as an Army nurse and rank Lt. Colonel, (and was awarded for helping improve the Iron Lung) I didn’t know anyone who was active duty military growing up, so it wasn’t part of my life.
It wasn’t until after 9/11 happened, and we went into Afghanistan and later Iraq, that it became really ‘real’. I was deeply affected by the events of that day, having been struck by the thought that, once again, after a major terrorist attack, America would lose its sense of innocence as a nation. Yes, there were other terrorist attacks on American soil, near and far, from the first World Trade Center bombing to Oklahoma City, to the Beirut, the USS Cole and the embassy bombings, but 9/11 was the first time such a massive attack had happened from a foreign adversary since Pearl Harbor and I knew it would once again change everything, and it has. The Pentagon and Twin Towers being hit was horrific enough, but watching the Towers fall was just an unfathomable shock.
We went to war very shortly in Afghanistan in order to dismantle al-Qaeda, and to deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power. Afghanistan was understood as having harbored Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the attacks as well as the previous attacks on the Cole and the Embassies. Two years later, we invaded Iraq, under the auspices that Saddam Hussein had both collaborated with the 9/11 hijackers and also that he had WMD’s or Weapons of Mass Destruction and was a threat to America’s security. I’m not going to elaborate on my opinion of those ‘facts’, merely laying out a timeline of events. By 2003, we had troops actively engaged in combat operations in two countries, and in 2019, we still do, and in fact, in more countries.
As a nation, we’ve been involved in active war, beyond the types of in-and-out Special Operations missions we engage in, for 18 years and counting, and likely to continue.
We’ve had over 2,200 deaths in Afghanistan, 4,500 deaths in Iraq, 76 in Syria, and 1 in Yemen, and about a million wounded in both conflicts, according to reports. Additionally, it’s estimated that 22 veterans a day commit suicide, which, if true, would make 8,030 suicides a year. It could be more than that, some estimate as many as 25 a day, which would mean every year there are as many veteran suicides as the amount of troops killed in action or accident in the entirety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. No one knows for absolute certain, nor the precise breakdown of the numbers, it could be veterans of previous wars and not attributable to the current conflicts, and it could be stateside active duty who haven’t seen combat. Not that any of that matters per se, it just illustrates that veterans, be they retired, short-termers or active-duty, have issues that don’t appear to be being addressed.
As an American who enjoys the liberties bestowed upon me by the Constitution and upon the backs of these veterans, I take Memorial Day both seriously and personally, as I believe all Americans should. I’ve made it a point to learn as much as I can about the wars that have been fought by our military, though my knowledge is slim as the information is so vast. There are debates as to which wars we’ve engaged in have been ‘just’ and about ‘freedom’, i.e., WWII, and those that have been undeclared and just about profit and warmongering for those in government. Of course, in a way, all war is about profit in some way or another, but you get the point.
Most people agree we were right to go to war against the Nazis and Japan after Pearl Harbor, but not everyone agrees on Korea, Vietnam (both of which included a Draft) and Iraq. As we reflect upon those wars, and the suffering of both those who fought and bound their wounds and the families of those who did so continues, it brings up the necessary question we should ask when considering any armed conflict. Is it worth sacrificing the body, mind, or life of anyone’s child, parent, or relative, and would you sacrifice your own loved ones for this ‘cause’? It sounds simple but that’s the cost, so that’s what should be considered. It usually isn’t, because war-hawks rarely send their own to fight, but it should.
When Memorial Day comes around, I have a little ritual I do. I generally walk a trail, in part in honor of those who physically can’t, to show my gratitude for the mobility it’s so easy to take for granted. I pray for the spirits of the dead, and the ones they left behind. I usually watch some war-related movies or documentaries, such as Saving Private Ryan, or ones like Taking Chance (highly recommended if you haven’t seen it). This year it was on the Korean War and the Battle for Chosin Reservoir, which was devastating to learn about, though I was heartened to know that some of the veterans felt the South Korean people had prospered with their freedom and had earned their service and sacrifice. I watch the concert specials and the specials of the veterans as they reflect on their time in combat, and I think about both what they and their fellow war-fighters went through and how it affected them, and what their families have and are still going through, including families of POW-MIA still unaccounted for. And I cry – alot!
It’s heartbreaking and healing at the same time. Some may think it’s some kind of war porn, but it’s not that at all, it’s always with the question ‘Am I worth it?’ Am I worth their sacrifice? I feel that I am not worthy of it – the loss of their lives. Not worthy of the breaking of their bodies, and sometimes their minds and spirits, the suffering of the ones who bound their wounds, and of the families they left behind. I try to be, but I’m not. I couldn’t have made it in the military at the age most signed up, I was such a mess. But I strive to be worthy, and I understand the cost of my freedom. And that’s not a shallow type of ‘rah-rah Patriot’ slogan, it’s a fact! Someone else, many someone else’s have taken my place, have signed up, shown up and volunteered to go all around the world, meeting danger if necessary, in the name of defending America, of defending me.
And it’s easy to wave the flag and sing the Star Spangled Banner and say ‘Thank you for your service’, which of course I do proudly, but in order to feel some bit of worthiness, I also volunteer to serve veterans and I go to veteran functions to demonstrate my gratitude, to put it into action. I try to squeeze out of life what I can, and though I fall short, and waste more time than I should, precious time that they would and did give their lives for, I try. It is a noble thing to lay down your life for your neighbor. It is a necessary thing to care for those they left behind, and for those who still take up that mantle.
As a civilian Patriot, Memorial Day reminds me that I owe a debt of gratitude that I must keep forever in my heart and use that to inspire my fight to save the country under that flag they fought for, that their sacrifice not be in vain.