Yesterday, the husband and I watched a movie called Last Flag Flying. Set in 2003, it is a tale of three Vietnam War vets who come together to help one of them transport and bury his son, who was killed in action in Baghdad. It is a very good film, and I encourage you to watch it. It can be found on Amazon Prime Video for free.
It was particularly stirring for me, the mother of two sons and a son-in-law who are veterans. All three have been overseas; South Korea, Japan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany. My oldest son saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is, of course, the one I worried about the most. The other countries may have been less prone to danger, but in these times, one has to worry no matter where they are, and tensions around the globe are high. I will add, though, that when my youngest boy was a submariner, I worried every single time he went underway. Communication was next to impossible for three months at a time, and wondering where my child was, at any given moment, in the vast expanse and depths of the Pacific Ocean? In a large, nuclear-powered tube with nuclear warheads aboard? Nerve-wracking was not even close to describing how I felt, but it will suffice.
My oldest son, getting ready to deploy the first time.
Navy seamen; in the center, my son.
My son-in-law and daughter in a “lighter moment” – attending a Ball.
There was one particular moment in the movie that gripped me and caused a heavy, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and that was the scene in which Doc (played by the brilliantly understated Steve Carell) describes what it was like to see that gray car pull up to his house and a Marine and Marine Chaplain get out.
It punched me in the gut. I don’t know what it is like to receive that visit, that terrible notification, the words that shatter a parent or a spouse or loved one into a million little pieces. I am grateful, every single day, that I don’t know that pain. But I lived in fear of it every, single day my boys were serving. I especially lived with that fear when my child was in the Middle East, where the fighting was. The thought that an official-looking car could show up in front of my house and a soldier could express “The President’s regret” while a Chaplain stood by, clutching a Bible? That was my worst fear and the stuff of nightmares. I did not sleep well during those years, especially when they were in different time zones. I wanted to be awake if my babies were. I wanted to somehow will my love and strength to them psychically, if that makes any sense.
The scene, in my favorite war movie, Saving Private Ryan, where the mother receives that visit and she is given the devastating news that three of her four sons are dead; I think that moment in cinema will be indelibly etched into my consciousness. Every mother who has sent a child off to war understands that moment in a visceral, raw way; it resonates in the deepest, darkest depths of her soul. In that moment, when you see her spy the car kicking up dust along the road as it makes its way to her farmhouse, and then walk out onto her porch and drop to her knees and just simply sit; you feel her pain as if it was real. Because, for so many mothers, fathers, spouses, and loved ones, it was real. It has played out since World War I, and before the automobile and official visits, via telegram. I do not know what is worse, or more soul-emptying: that car or that impersonal, yellow slip of paper. Both are devastating in their business, though; that much is certain.
Today, we are supposed to honor the fallen, who gave their lives for their country. We attend parades and watch mostly old, fiercely proud generations walk slowly down the center of our Main Streets, holding flags, and some of us stick around to listen to the speeches given by officials in parks, in front of Statehouses or Courthouses. We sing The National Anthem and place our hands upon our hearts and some of us shed tears. We pause in solemn, reverential silence to mark the occasion.
Then, we hurry home to make picnic food, fire up the grill, and crack open a beer or ten. We have pool openings and loud music and raucous laughter in our yards, on our decks, in parks. We tell each other to “go easy” because work commences tomorrow. For those who are working in retail, in healthcare, on police forces or rescue services, it’s just another busier than normal day of stupid people getting into drunken fights over stupid things or some dumbass lighting a firecracker in a beer can and blowing off a finger or two or assholes demanding an employee “go out back and see if there’s more charcoal/marshmallows/etc”.
Yes, we did our part. We stood in reverence for a few moments and maybe we even thought about our soldiers past, present, and future and their sacrifices. Maybe the tears we felt prickling the corners of our eyes were heartfelt. Maybe for a moment, we actually thought about war, and how it really is hell. My bet is that a great many more of us were looking at our watches, thinking about “everything that needs done” before guests arrive, or that the brisket in the smoker needs checked soon, or “Did I buy enough beer?” ‘Merica, people.
If you mark this day quietly, or if you hold a gathering and pause to reflect, good for you. You still get it. Memorial Day is a day to reflect on and to honor those who have fallen and those who serve and have served with valor. It’s not “The beginning of summer” or “Pool opening day”. Men and women died so you could have that picnic, crush those brewskies, and dunk your kids in that pool.
Reflect, if you will, on this: as you bite into that burger, somewhere, there is the possibility that a mother/father/spouse/next of kin is receiving a visit from an official car by military personnel. Our soldiers are still dying in a foreign land. They still die because they cannot get the help they need stateside after what they had to see and do when they were deployed. Those very facts should be remembered; not just today, but every, single day. These very facts are distressing and require our attention 365 days of the year; not just one.
I have a suggestion for you. Treat every day like Memorial Day. Speak your mind, speak with your vote, honor the fallen, and help to prevent another death by roadside bomb or sniper or suicide bomber by speaking up and demanding that your government end this warmongering behavior it displays with impunity. Not since World War II have we needed to go to war. How many American lives were lost in the wars after World War II? The statistics I’ve consulted put it at roughly 100,000. That doesn’t include wounded who later died as a result of conditions caused by their injuries, or suicides, but those numbers matter. They matter very much. Those suicides? They are a black stain on our country and on a military mindset that doesn’t recognize mental pain. That doesn’t provide adequate services for those afflicted with PTSD. They are casualties, too. Their loved ones grieve, too. There was no official car for those families; just desperation, pain, and ultimately, heartbreak.
They matter, too.
We need to remember that. We need to remember what matters. We need to quit sending our children over to fight wars in countries that don’t want us, need us, or share our values, shrinking as they are under the weight of a hateful, bumbling President who wouldn’t know courage if it walked up to him in the guise of a model or porn star and offered to teach him what it means to sacrifice.
He won’t remember. He won’t do it. But we can.
I’ll leave you with my favorite poem to mark this Memorial Day, and all to come.