Today is Memorial Day, May 27, 2013. In my little patch of Colorado this day is starting with cool temperatures, blue skies, green grass, and the sound of my little dog lapping water from his bowl before he clunks through the dog door to bask in the sun on the patio.
My grandfather was a World War 1 veteran. Every Memorial Day he was able, he rode in the parade his little Ohio town held to celebrate victory and honor those who had fought and died for our freedoms. He was the last WWl veteran from his area, outliving every other survivor by several years. He never talked about his experiences, even when asked a direct question. To me he was a gentle soul. He taught me to love the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio, the little country fair held every September along the banks of the Muskingum River, and the quiet of the dusk as late afternoon became evening and then night.
I wonder sometimes whether he appreciated his tiny town roots all the more in his later life because he understood the cost of our way of life better than I ever will. His was “the war to end all wars,” yet for the rest of his life there was always war somewhere, hundreds of thousands of young men just as he had been, giving the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. It still goes on to this day.
My father didn’t serve in WWll because he had had TB as a boy. His scarred lungs made him unfit for military duty. He was also in his 30’s by the time the United States got involved in that war, but I am sure he felt guilt and frustration as he stayed home and lived a relatively normal life while so many of his friends went off to war. He was a strapping 6’ 5” healthy looking man. Did anyone ever confront him about his life?
My brother was the next generation confronted with a great war, the War in Vietnam. There wasn’t any choice about serving in the military at that time, the draft made that impossible. My brother received a scholarship to Union Theological Seminary in New York when he graduated from college. He went, and stayed to finish, at least partially because it gave him an exemption from the war.
Interestingly, his two roommates who went on to become very close friends for the rest of my brother’s life, were Vietnam vets. One man was on permanent disability because he had shrapnel in his back it might have killed him to remove, so it was left there. The other chose his path of faith precisely because he had survived unimaginable experiences in combat.
I think back now and remember that Vietnam vets were booed and spit on sometimes when they returned from war. They were the first to routinely leave the jungles of war and arrive within a day or two to “normal” life back in the United States. What was it like to be despised because you had served your country honorably in an extremely unpopular conflict? I read recently that Vietnam Vets make up some huge percentage of our homeless population. I think that is a very poignant testament to the destructive power of war, and a shameful one to the power of mass opinion.
Now young men and women the ages of my children are coming back from Iran and Afghanistan, many with wounds that don’t show on the outside. Traumatic brain injuries cause personality changes and behavioral complications medical science is just beginning to learn to deal with. PTSD ruins not only the lives of the vets, but traumatizes the lives of each family member and friend who loves that vet. Medical advances make it possible for so any more people to survive the kinds of wounds that would have been unsurvivable even a few years ago. It seems to me these vets aren’t coming back to a system prepared to help them deal with the consequences of what they have been through very well. It takes months and years to get help. Some of the help isn’t very effective.
My heart goes out to our vets. It is Memorial Day, a day to honor and celebrate these people for their service. A good thing seems to be happening in society these days, and I hope it continues to grow and evolve. People are rallying together to create supplementary and alternative healthcare practices that pick up where the VA leaves off, or isn’t able to offer support. Our consciousness is waking up so that no matter what your opinion may be about the politics of war, or your support or disapproval of our goals in other parts of the world, we seem to be agreeing on one thing.
The people who fight these wars are our friends and neighbors, or the family members of our friends and neighbors, or our own families. They are human beings with dreams and hopes and desires just like ours. Our vets deserve honor and recognition and support on every level. It is shameful to me as an American when I sometimes see them struggle to get the help they need, or when it is so hard for them to ask, or when a vet chooses living on the street as a primary way of life.
I hope I live long enough to see exactly what my grandfather may have thought he was helping to bring about as he fought in WWl. I hope I live to see the end of war as a way to resolve conflict in our world. I don’t just mean technological advances that make it so costly to engage in war that we don’t, like nuclear bombs, or terror so great it paralyzes a foe, but a true end to war. I may be a dreamer but I don’t want anyone to suffer any more like this. I don’t want lives shattered forever, or lost, because one side has different views than another.
I would like to live to see the day when Memorial Day is a day to remember the sacrifices of the past. I would like to see it as an honoring of what was, but is no more. I would like my children, and everyone’s children and grandchildren and all the generations to come, to truly live in peace. As John Lennon sang in his song, Imagine, I hope I live to see “the brotherhood of man.”
In the meantime I salute, and support, and honor each man and woman who has made my way of life possible by your sacrifice, your courage, your humanity. Thank you. God bless.