I was talking to one of our Air Force senior leaders the other day who said, “Everyone who has served on the front lines of this war has been forever changed.” That was cool, because “Forever Changed” is the name of my blog journal that tells our story in Balad, Iraq in 2005.
It is also very true, we are forever changed. Memorial Day gets more difficult in a different way every year since 2005. So that brings me to a question that many need to ask, but haven’t. I know that because every Memorial Day I have people who wish me a ‘happy Memorial Day’ or they take that day to thank me for serving.
It’s appropriate to say thank you, I guess, but if you understand Memorial Day you would know it’s not for all of us who gave some. It’s for those who we honored in numerous Patriot Ceremonies. I can’t even recall these memories without tears forming in my eyes, and then a long deep breath helps me draw my focus back to this page. I’ve done many funerals and memorial services in my 20 years in ministry, but those Patriot Ceremonies were something clearly different.
As I walked up the ramp at the back of the cargo plane, I would be greeted by the crew who showed me to my place at the head of the flag draped caskets usually lined up in rows, there never seemed to only be one. Servicemen and women were usually gathered around inside the plane, some were from our medical unit and occasionally members of the deceased’s unit were present. On an even more rare occasion, the unit chaplain would be there, and I would always defer to him (they were always male). I would show him the liturgy for the ceremony and just stand back. We were told not to take pictures, but the memories of those moments will never leave my memory.
These warriors gave all of themselves on the battlefield where equality truly exists, because that round coming at you doesn’t care where you came from, or what you believe, your race, or your orientation. It will do it’s job the same. A year earlier these warriors might have been sitting in a high school classroom, then they raised their right hand and took an oath to protect an ideal with their life. The ceremony we performed was a reminder of freedom’s cost. A month earlier they might have welcomed a son or daughter into the world, been sitting on the beach, or having lunch with colleagues at work. Today, our mission was to ensure they departed the battlefield with dignity in a respectful way, that honored the sacrifice they made. That was just part of it, though, because those standing around those caskets would have to return to the frontlines where they would find themselves back in harms way. These ceremonies were one way to provide them an outlet to say goodbye to their friend and be able to turn their mind’s focus back where it would need to be in order to keep them from being the next flag draped casket we would honor. Memorial Day is for these some, who gave all.
There is another group that I would include in this number for whom Memorial Day is for. One story I remember was told to me by a soldier, a father, and a husband who was waiting in the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Flight (CASF) for his flight that would take him back to the states for care. He was there after his convoy came under fire where he operated the crew serve weapon. It was believed they were being fired at from a wall so he was ordered to take down the wall. What he didn’t know was that there were children behind the wall. He could not forgive himself, and he told me that he was afraid to return home to his family. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to engage with his children without thinking of the children behind the wall. We had many conversations, and I have no idea what might have happened to him, but I still pray for him and his family. I believe Memorial Day is also for those who physically came home, but they were not whole in their homecoming. It is for those who have asked me to help them to be a better father and husband because since they have come home their anger and impatience gets the best of them. They don’t feel comfortable in public. They get embarrassed when they jump at every loud noise. It is for those who only want to enjoy time playing with their children on the floor without losing focus and begin reliving an old memory. I believe Memorial Day is for these, because all of us gave some, but these some gave all.
The casualties of war are often obvious, but families get overlooked and this is where such subtle yet personal loss occurs. These losses don’t always happen because a service member dies, most often the service member who leaves is not the service member who returns home. Remember, forever changed? It’s true. The story of Chris Kyle really personified this. Yet the losses are also the many birthdays, anniversaries, births, proms, recitals, and football games that are missed and those moments can never be recaptured. I was deployed 10 of my first 18 months on active duty. My first deployment was 2 months after I came on active duty, and I only had 48 hours notice to get my stuff together, be briefed on the mission, and say goodbye before I stepped on the plane. For so many, being deployed has become a norm, and spouses learn to live without the service member which makes it all the more difficult to return. You see, every time the service member leaves and returns the equilibrium of the house is destroyed. The family forms new routines and processes that compensate for the absence of the military member. When he or she returns and wishes to resume former roles, it negates the growth of the family and the new structures that are in place. For some spouses, the stress is too much; they married their spouse to be with them not without them. Divorce becomes prevalent. Children are ripped away from service members. Meanwhile, they get new orders, are sent around the world trying to figure out how to stay relevant in the life of a child who is too young to understand where mommy or daddy is and why they are not there. So if Memorial Day is for the some who gave all, then for these families who have been destroyed by the stresses and strains of service to country, Memorial Day is for them too.
So though you may have never considered the question of why we have Memorial Day, perhaps you might take some time this Memorial Day to consider that for a service person, Memorial Day is a holiday rich with meaning. There is usually someone we can think back to whom we can say, “I remember.” So please refrain from thanking us on this hallowed day because this day does not belong to us, it is for the some who gave their all.