Author’s Note: Re-posting from last year, because some messages don’t change.
How do You Celebrate Memorial Day?
That was a trick question.
Across the country, folks are firing up those backyard barbecue grills, stocking the beer coolers, brewing sweet tea, and hunting through the garage for the horseshoes and lawn chairs. Company’s a-comin’ and it’s sure to be a day of fellowship and relaxation.
Partiers and politicians alike will make mention in their toasts and speeches of “those who died in defense of this nation” as if it’s a public service announcement. Something to check off on their “to-do” lists for the day.
But there are also people across the land who are hurting today, for whom this day intensifies the memories of loved ones who didn’t come home. A folded flag presentation. A stone marker in Arlington or any one of the nation’s 131 veteran’s cemeteries. An empty seat at the picnic table.
It’s a little different for me. The day brings back myriad interviews I’ve been honored to have conducted with men who fought and survived. Some were such great storytellers I can still envision what they saw in battle.
I once had a conversation with Haddys B. Hixon, a true Teufelshunde (Marine Corps Devil Dog) whose memories of the fighting in Belleau Woods, France during World War I were so vivid he didn’t speak of the war until he was in his 80s. At 84 he traveled with his son back to France, where he was able to stand in the same fox hole he’d fought in all those years ago. He could still picture the Marines who had died beside him. He could recite all of their names.
The surviving members of Edson’s Raiders used to meet annually at Quantico, until there were too few left for a reunion. I met with them many times and listened to their stories. They always made sure to tell me about Smitty. He had been wounded on Guadalcanal during heavy fighting, and they’d been forced to leave him propped against a tree so they could continue the advance, but they promised to get him on their way back. They never saw him again, and they never learned what had happened to him.
In Yuma, Arizona, I met Delbert “Sparky” Sparks, a submariner who had been captured on Mindanao in The Philippines and was forced to make the 80-mile Bataan Death march, during which more than 15,000 civilians and military personnel died from the brutal treatment by their Japanese captors. Sparky was one of only 510 prisoners in his camp who survived until they were liberated by Army Rangers. He waited more than 40 years to tell his story, and to receive his Bronze Star and POW medal. There were some parts of his story he refused to share.
History books and visits to our national battlefields and monuments have also put pictures into my head. I’ve stood at the Alamo and wondered what it must have been like for the fewer than 200 men, after holding off the first two waves of Santa Anna’s nearly 2,000 men, to watch that north wall come crashing down and know they were in their last minutes of life on this earth.
I’ve looked over the sunken road wall in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Confederate Army Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland spent a long, cold December night listening as hundreds of wounded Union soldiers on the other side lay dying, crying out for help. I wondered what he thought as he leapt across that wall, armed with canteens, and tried to dole out that last measure of kindness to his Union brothers.
And I’ve read with awe, the accounts of heroes like Marine Lt John Bobo, who, while fighting in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, had his right leg severed below the knee. Knowing he could not survive, he used his belt for a tourniquet and jammed the stump into the dirt to stem the bleeding. Then, ordering his men to safety, he laid fire at the enemy until he was overrun, but not before his men were able to safely reposition to a place from which they launched a successful attack and repelled the enemy.
People, with names and faces. Selfless acts of gallantry. Pride in this nation and her ideals. Our country lives on and its people are free because of its legacy of heroes. This is not Thank a Veteran Day, although it is always appropriate to do so. This is Remember the Cost Day. When you hear the Rolling Thunder bikers parade past, consider the Prisoners of War for whom they ride. When you lift your toast to those who served, say a prayer for those who will never be the same because of what they saw, or because of their injuries. Reflect a moment about the freedoms we still enjoy, and honor the sacrifice that made them possible. Learn their stories; teach them to your children; don’t let their names fade away.
How do you celebrate Memorial Day? You don’t.