Honoring America’s Fallen Warriors on Memorial Day
War is a dirty, smelly, fearful and mean-spirited business. It’s a grotesque funeral that often lasts for years. All combat soldiers have walked into this dark night of terror and dared death to have the last word. Sadly, and much to our sorrow, sometimes it did. Memorial Day is a time to remember these who stood tall for this country during our military campaigns and had their lives snatched from them while doing their part to end these conflicts and preserve liberty for millions around our world.
This year’s Memorial Day observance spans a timeline extending from our War of Independence through America’s involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. These military actions have silenced approximately 1,317,804 voices forever. (This does not include those still missing in action.) But the true essence of this day involves individual human beings, not a compilation of assorted statistics.
As a helicopter medical evacuation pilot, who flew nearly 1,000 missions in Viet Nam, I’ve been front-row-center for a lot of devastating action. I’ve often had an unrestricted close-up view of unspeakable battlefield carnage where unexpected, life-changing events swirled around everyone like fog in a rainstorm. That is where a soldier realizes in a flash that harm and death don’t befall just the wicked. It’s a place where I’ve heard my medics tell critically wounded comrades, time and again, “Hang on, buddy, you’re going to be all right.” A lot of the time we, and perhaps even those wounded, realized that this was undoubtedly a well-intentioned lie. These visions of violence are not cherished highlights in anyone’s memory bank.
The real champions of our nation’s wars have been those men and women who innately understood the horrendous risks and still left their safe havens in an attempt to preserve freedoms for others. These were freedoms that so many of them would never get to experience or enjoy much past their teen years, once they raised their right hands and took their enlistment oaths. The first things that had to be discarded in combat were any rose-colored glasses. These soldiers knew there would be little glory, no glamour, only darkness, destruction, disease, dismemberment and death. But still they went, willing to swim into piranha-infested waters or no-holds-barred confrontations, to do their duty.
That’s why the chalky-white tombstones stretching from Arlington to Gettysburg and across the Pacific Ocean to Omaha Beach, in addition to hundreds of other once violent places around our planet, speak so eloquently of America’s military personnel over the course of its illustrious martial history. They voluntarily risked death to provide peace for the rest of us. And we must learn to live for it, too. Our fallen heroes have found their peace. Those of us fortunate enough to remain must continue to grope for ours in a world that still appears as dangerous and uncertain as ever. But even for us who remain, haunting memories and often nightmares may still persist long after the guns on distant shores have fallen silent.
Memorial Day is a time of solemnity and remembrance. We honor the dedication of those who were seized from us by the ravages of war and relive the pain of their loss. Armed conflict has always proven that not everyone survives these confrontational situations. Our fallen realized that the enemy was always lurking in the shadows with a goal to terminate their existence. They also accepted the fact that the odds were often stacked against them. When everything in close vicinity had descended into havoc and potential disaster, they all failed to be whiners, cowards or quitters. And they were intimately aware that in battle you can’t call a time-out because you’re tired, beat-up or outnumbered. It’s an undeniable truth that rivers of warrior DNA flowed through each of them.
The soldiers I recall most vividly from combat were anonymous to all but their friends, families and those they served with. I witnessed too many of them die month after weary month. Some volunteered to crawl alone into dangerous and claustrophobic, enemy tunnel systems using only guts, a pistol and flashlight. They walked an exposed point while “humping the boonies” as grunts on the ground. Many flew through intense anti-aircraft fire over enemy strongholds. Others fought off massive human wave attacks in the dead of night on remote landing zones and artillery bases. Each morning, despite the unknowns, they forced their bodies to move out and do it all again. They persisted. They didn’t back off. Fear, courage, close and final calls were a way of life to them in these tempestuous moments.
The legacy of our war dead is like summoning the legend of the Trojans who vowed never to come home without their shields. In every conflict this country has been engaged in, America’s warriors came home with them… or on them. Their goal was never to betray themselves or act in ways unworthy of a great homeland.
Every war and battlefield in this nation’s history has been unique, yet the strong threads of soldier commitment, determination and acts of valor connect all of our fallen. It wasn’t a person’s size, sex, age or race that mattered in the final analysis, because courage has always been defined by the individual act itself. That’s why it’s not appropriate to recount their countless heroic deeds with verbose and flashy rhetoric. The documented facts concerning their actions require no further elaboration or additional justification.
Each new soldier generation is required to take up the banner of safeguarding our nation and to derive the necessary sense of obligation from memories, stories and records of those who have gone before. That’s why David’s encounter with Goliath will never be forgotten, because it’s recorded in the Bible; the legendary deeds of Odysseus in the Trojan War are remembered because of Homer’s writings. So it’s essential and obligatory that America’s fallen warriors be honored in speeches and articles on this special and significant day. In this way, those whom they protected and served to their fullest measure of devotion will never forget their manifestation of love, duty, discipline and gallant courage.
America’s war dead have always been this nation’s most precious resource because we would not have been able to appreciate or enjoy any of our other resources without their sacrifices. All of us, our children and everyone who will come hereafter, walk in their shadow and their debt. It’s a debt we can never repay and must never forget.
One of the simplest, yet most profound, eulogies ever written for our combat veterans who never returned — this side of the Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln — was penned by combat journalist, extraordinaire, Ernie Pyle in 1943 in his WWII book “Here Is Your War.”
Pyle wrote, “Medals and speeches and victories are nothing to them any more. They died and others lived and nobody knows why it is so. They died and thereby the rest of us can go on and on. When we leave here for the next shore, there is nothing we can do for the ones beneath the wooden crosses, except perhaps to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks, pal’.”
Pyle, a noncombatant civilian, was himself killed, on 18 April 1945, by Japanese machinegun fire on Ie Shima, an island off Okinawa.
Like Ernie Pyle, war veterans have our own memories of fallen comrades that have been stored, like squir-rels store their nuts, somewhere for safekeeping in the cache of our hearts. We reflect on their smiles in faded combat photographs we’ve stashed in dresser drawers, a box under our bed or dusty closets. Their smiles are frozen in time during moments of better days… before they were no more. These were times when what lay ahead was not yet known and couldn’t be known, although we heard many of them provide unsettling and ac-curate premonitions long before these mental forewarnings became reality.
Price for freedom
In today’s society, it appears that many of the protected have short memories when it comes to understand-ing and appreciating the sacrifices of our war dead. Combat forces a soldier to take personal responsibility for representing his country, protecting himself and those around him. This is something that large portions of Americans now appear comfortable letting others do for them. With the all-volunteer Army, why not let someone else endure the risks and pain?
Some are even offended that anyone might suggest that they should have to “pay any personal dues” for the privilege of living in a free country, other than paying taxes. And many of their perceptions about the reality of war are based on the often skewed views of news and entertainment media or politicians who’ve never donned a military uniform or heard a shot fired in anger. One wonders what our Founding Fathers would think about the current path we find ourselves on as a nation.
Observing the deaths of Americans, foreign civilians and even the enemy, from close range, touches the very core of the human condition. It’s something you can never dismiss or forget as long as you live. Each of the deaths of those I carried in my helicopter cargo compartment had its own strangeness and sorrow. I recall so many distinctive youthful faces tilted toward the light with open and unseeing eyes. This was a common sight and experience for medevac crews and also soldiers fighting on the ground. These fallen were the “heaviest” portion of all that we carried. They were the ones each of us did what we could to save; yet ultimately failed in the attempt.
Untimely death in war reminds us that life is fleeting but that any time spent defending freedom is time well spent, whether it’s for our country or someone else’s. And, on this special day, we can’t forget warriors’ age-old fear that their sacrifices might be forgotten. It is the obligation of those who survive, no mat-ter which war it is, to see that this fear is never realized and to relate the stories of those who didn’t, like Ishmael in Moby Dick.
Memorial Day can carry combat veterans back to WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq or whatever war we fought in, as effectively as any time machine. It reinforces our grief of lost relatives, friends or comrades and continues to haunt us, hitching a ride on our thoughts and emotions by creating persistent aches in our souls. The memories of these silenced warriors will forever be etched in our minds.
This nation’s main line of defense is not, and never has been, state-of-the-art defense systems destined for land, sea or space. Rather, it is the American men and women whose own lives have defended besieged foreigners and the rest of their fellow citizens for as long as we’ve been a nation.
So on this 2012 Memorial Day — regardless of where these fallen fought, what era military uniform they wore or whether they volunteered or were drafted — Ernie Pyle’s memorable words are meant especially for them. “Thanks, pal.” The democracy, peace and safety we experience today wouldn’t be a reality without the selfless gift of their collective efforts.