Memorial Day


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PHOTO CREDIT: Susan M Hall / Shutterstock.com

By Joey Kennedy

My father-in-law, Norman Pike, would never talk about his service in World War II. About all he told us was that he was an Army cook in Europe after D-Day. But he left World War II with two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. His back was scarred from shrapnel wounds.

Norman was either one helluva cook—or the very worst cook ever.

I’ll be thinking of Norman on the last Monday of this month—Memorial Day. While he wasn’t killed in the war, we knew the war was eating at him, probably until his death in 1985.

It is not uncommon that military veterans from any war find it difficult to talk about their combat experiences.

But the five veterans I spoke with recently all had one emotion in common: None of them looks at Memorial Day as a good time for a barbecue or going to one of the thousands of sales at malls and shopping centers. Memorial Day to them is not a celebration, but rather a solemn commemoration.

“There aren’t a lot of things that make me emotional,” says Al Mickle, 51, a Navy Corpsman who served in Somalia and the first Iraq war. “But Taps, a flag-draped coffin, yes. It’s the brothers and sisters who didn’t come back alive.

“That to me is what Memorial Day is about: the men and women who did not come back,” Mickle says. “You won’t get me close to a store on Memorial Day.”

We seem to have turned Memorial Day into just another excuse for a three-day weekend. It’s the unofficial kickoff to summer. Time to party, right? Let’s go to the beach.

“I don’t tell people happy Memorial Day, because it’s not happy to me,” says Meredith Palmer, 38, a recently retired Air Force Major for the Mississippi National Guard. “Memorial Day is to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”

A critical care transport nurse, Palmer served in Kosovo, Hurricane Katrina, and Iraqi Freedom in 2007. She knows about loss. “Some of my patients died,” she says. “You protect your mind while you’re there. You reframe your mind. The hard part was coming home and adjusting out of that.”

Mickle agrees. “You train, and you train,” he says. “Men and women can train for years, and they’ll revert back to their training (in combat). There’s no amount of training that prepares you for when you come back home, from what you’ve seen and, sometimes, for what you’ve done.”

Vietnam veteran Andre Taylor, 70, was deployed just before the Tet Offensive in January 1968. He was part of a 17-member ambush patrol that was ambushed itself in early March of that year. Three soldiers were killed and six wounded, including Taylor, who was shot in the ankle.

“What we went through was something totally out of our realm of experiences, so we really didn’t have a way of processing it or accepting it,” Taylor says. “You weren’t brought up in it, so what’s the frame of reference for processing it? You don’t have it, and because you don’t have it, it just sort of sits there.”

Taylor spent close to a month in a hospital in Japan, and then was flown back to the United States and Walter Reed Hospital near Washington, D.C. On landing, he looked out of the plane’s window and saw areas of Washington on fire. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated.

“I just left hell, and now I was coming back to hell,” Taylor remembers. 

While Taylor understands the commercialization of three-day weekends like Memorial Day, “that’s not what the weekend is about. It’s about remembering. Beyond that, nothing else means a thing to me.”

Richard Cobb Lacy, 90, was a lieutenant in the Korean War. He, too, was wounded, “very slightly,” he says. “It was nothing to speak about.”

Like his wounds, Lacy says, the war is nothing to speak about.

“Combat is something that is difficult to put into words and feelings,” Lacy says. “It’s indescribable. You don’t want to drag the memories back up. A lot of us have memories that are not good. You dream about them, and retelling will bring it all back up. And that’s probably the reason most veterans of any war don’t want to talk about the nitty-gritty of combat.”

Memorial Day is no time for celebration, Lacy says. “It’s a time of reflection,” he says. “It’s a time, to me, for giving prayer to the lost lives, lost souls, lost youth, lost opportunities. It’s a price we were all willing to pay. Some paid it, and some didn’t.

“War is kind of an idiotic pastime,” Lacy continues. “It’s a poor substitute for settling differences. But humans don’t seem to be able to handle their differences any other way, be it religious, ideological, or political.”

World War II veteran Edward “Eddie” Bryan, 94, of Huntsville, admitted he rarely spoke about his war experiences, though he has since written a short memoir about his service.

Now, Bryan says, there’s “nobody left that I was in the service with.” Memorial Day to Bryan, he says, is like just another Monday. “I don’t get excited about anything anymore,” he says.

Who lives and who dies in war is often a matter of luck, Mickle says. Because of that, “if you lose one of your buddies, or even if one of your buddies is injured, there’s this survivor’s guilt,” he says. “Frequently, we feel guilty because it wasn’t us.”

I often wondered if my father-in-law, Norman, didn’t have that same feeling. I often wondered why he wouldn’t talk about his war experiences. But to a man (and woman), each of the veterans I spoke with said they did their duty, and most would do it again.

“You know what you’re signing up for,” says Meredith Palmer.

“You feel a closeness, a brotherhood to the guy next to you, or in your foxhole,” says Lacy. “When one of them gets hurt or killed, it takes a while to get over the shock of it. The smoke of battle takes it away for awhile, but when a time of official remembrance comes, you think about them again. They never really go away.”

Let us all remember, not only on this Memorial Day but every day.

Update: B-Metro and Joey Kennedy are sad to report that Mr. Bryan, World War II veteran, has passed away peacefully on May 1, 2017. We send our deepest condolences to his family and friends, and want to thank him for serving our country.

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