Over the years I’ve often been asked: “What’s the correct way to celebrate Memorial Day, and, is the word celebrate even the right word? Should we be somber and reflective, or happy and celebratory because of all we have to be thankful for?” To this I’d emphatically respond with: “Yes”- you should be both, wholeheartedly.
I’ve lost many friends and fellow veterans through the years. Some of them gave their lives in battlefields thousands of miles away, and others have lost their lives right here at home. A few years ago, I shared the immeasurable spirit of Tim Price who was killed in Baghdad in September of 2004 (Tim Price, My Inspiration on Memorial Day, and Every Other). On both the anniversary of his passing each September, and every Memorial Day I make sure I spend equal parts of time reflecting on his loss and sacrifice, while also celebrating his memory by sharing “Tim stories” with my three children. These stories remind us of how Tim lived his young life, inspiring us to be our better selves, while also reminding us to look beyond our day to day challenges in the context of those sacrifices endured by those fallen veterans and their families. And, I truly believe it’s the families that need all of us the most every day- especially on Memorial Day. I vividly recall one father’s journey who I had the honor of meeting over a decade ago.
I’d arrived at Dover Air Base very early that morning. While it was not my role as the casualty assistance officer to notify the family of their service-member’s death, it was my responsibility to help manage the days between notification and the funeral. I was assisting with the family of a 23-year-old young man who had been tragically killed in Iraq. The sense of grief and loss was palpable from the time I arrived until the time the family laid him to rest some three days later. The most poignant moment of those days came when his father insisted that he help prepare his son’s dress uniform for his funeral services. As we opened his son’s closet, where he’d left his uniform before he deployed, his father went through, piece by piece, sharing a story behind each article that was hanging in place.
“This is he letterman’s jacket”, he shared with pride breaking through some of his grief. “He was a two-time district champion in the shot put. His sister was the runner, but boy he could throw the shot a mile.”
The stories continued for well-over an hour, and in listening to his father I learned about this young sergeant, and learned even more about his father’s immeasurable pride in his son. It struck me how vivid his recollection of all those moments in time were- suites from middle school dances, to favorite shirts from first girlfriends, to varsity jackets and the exact distance of the winning throw. Every memory shared was a brief respite from the unimaginable grief, and the stark reality that his son was gone. There was even a laugh or two over a few “fashion mistakes”- as he labeled them- were revealed during our journey. And, it struck me that there was a hero in front of me- a father who forged through so much pain, to share memories of a life lived wonderfully.
Memorial Day is a day and a time to honor the sacrifice of those who we’ve lost. But, one father taught me that even through the darkest hours of loss there’s still room to share fond memories, and that these remembrances help us heal even the deepest of wounds. On this Memorial Day I’d like to pay special tribute to all the family members who’ve lost someone in the service of our country. Thanks to all of you for being heroes in your own right, and for sharing these powerful memories with all of us on Memorial Day- and every day of the year.