Memorial Day from Afghanistan
Memorial Day is a great holiday. It marks the beginning of summer with parties and the return of good weather. As a kid growing up in Jamestown, it was the day the old fire engine came out and everyone lined Narragansett Avenue for the big parade. Yet, within all the good times that we certainly deserve over the long weekend, Memorial Day should be time for introspection. In fact, I don’t think there is an event that causes one to examine their place in life more than a memorial.
When a memorial fits into the natural cycle with the passing of someone older than yourself, you grieve. Of course, strong feelings well up from inside all of us knowing we will not joke, laugh or share time with that person again. Yet, there is solace in knowing people older than us should naturally be memorialized first. The unexpected loss of a peer or someone younger turns the natural cycle upside down. Memorials are not supposed to be for the young. So, the unfairness of a tragic accident or an unanticipated illness makes all of the emotions at the memorial more pronounced and acute. In our hometown, memorials for young people are, thankfully, not normal.
I recently attended a memorial in Afghanistan. It was for the first Marine to be killed in action since my arrival nearly two months ago. I did not know the Marine, but he worked in the building next to mine with several others that I did know. At 39 years young, this master sergeant was fast approaching his 20th year as a Marine. He did not have to come to Afghanistan, but he actively petitioned with many levels of command to deploy.
Leaving behind two young daughters, coming here was a choice for him, the culmination of a life of dedication to supporting his country and the Marines with which he served. Each friend who spoke reinforced that this Marine, never having been to Afghanistan before, had to come here before he could contemplate “putting in his papers” to retire. Instead, he was the victim of an improvised explosive device detonating under his vehicle. He is the face of Memorial Day in Afghanistan.
Soon, his picture will hang, in memorial, in the entrance hall to the commanding general’s building at Camp Leatherneck. For now, his is the last in a display of over 500 pictures placed on these walls, one of each service member killed in action in the three years since the Marine Corps returned to Helmand Province. The rows of 5-by-7 images snake around the corner of the foyer and down the corridor as if a wall-mounted yearbook.
With his 39 years, the master sergeant is old enough to be the father of many of the people in the pictures. He may be the oldest person memorialized on this Hall of Heroes. What could almost be high-school graduation photos for most of them stare back hinting of dreams that should have been. Every speaker at every memorial for these 500 would have rendered similar remarks about why that individual worked hard to get to Afghanistan, to do their part to serve. Yet the reality of these memorials truly turns everything upside down – in Afghanistan, memorials for the young are the rule, not the exception.
So, with Memorial Day upon us, another great parade ready to step off, another bugle call ready to be played at the cemetery, and another beautiful display of flags ready to be placed on the waterfront, what should our introspection be? What should this Memorial Day cause us to contemplate?
First, we must recognize. We must recognize that our nation is tired of war. For the 11th consecutive Memorial Day, our nation is at war and political decisions may see us at war for longer. Yet, regardless of where political decisions may take this war, we must recognize that we can never tire in our support for the young who are fighting it for us. We must recognize that the experience of my brother on his return from Vietnam in 1971, to be despised for simply wearing the uniform of his country, must never be repeated. When our young people make the choice to go, and when they are fortunate enough to come home, they must always have the last measure of support from those at home – no matter how long the war.
Next, we must remember. We must remember that Memorial Day is more than the parade and the cookout. It is the recurring memorial for all the young people who served, had their world turned upside down, and have a photo, somewhere, to remind all of their sacrifice. We must also remember the day is a continuing tribute to the rest who served and returned. It is worth all our efforts to remember their sacrifices as well. We must always remember the face of this master sergeant of Marines and so many like him, both living and dead, for what they were willing to do for us.
Lastly, we must resolve. In very few instances, words can transcend time. It cannot be spoken better than Abraham Lincoln, who said, “That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ... and government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
The author – a Jamestown resident – is a retired colonel in the Marine Corps who was deployed by the Naval War College for a three-month tour at U.S. headquarters in Afghanistan.