30 May 2011

Memorial Day follow-up

Iraq War veteran Don Gomez writes in the Daily Beast:

Like many Americans, I grew up without really understanding the meaning behind Memorial Day. I associated the holiday with barbecues, a day off from school, and sleepy Sunday afternoon movies about submarines and Generals. Even when I was fighting in Iraq, or jumping out of airplanes with the 82nd Airborne Division, it still seemed like an old holiday for old men. As a war veteran, I eventually came to understand the meaning, but I still figured it wouldn’t become my holiday until I was retired and gray.

Ten years of war has changed that. For the quiet few who have shouldered these wars, Memorial Day is no longer an abstract holiday honoring a faceless mass of heroes from a history textbook. It’s a list of names of people you know, reluctantly accumulated and growing ever longer. It’s a reminder of the awkward long-distance phone call to tell a friend that his old squad leader and mentor was killed in an IED blast in Afghanistan. It’s the swirl of emotions felt when informed that a friend was just killed in Iraq, leaving behind a young wife and children. It is the unavoidable sinking feeling, deep in the stomach, of "Why me? Why am I okay?"

When once I may have thought of Memorial Day veterans as old men in wheelchairs, I now think of the young blonde soldier at Walter Reed, painfully fixing her prosthetic leg to her knee for her morning physical training session.

This mirrors my own experience of Memorial Day (not counting the bit about jumping out of airplanes). When I was a kid/adolescent/young man it was about as remote and meaningful as Armistice Day or Colombus Day. Though I don't have the personal experiences that Mr Gomez does, it's fair to say that this has become, once again, a living holiday. Pity it took ten years of war for me and others of our generation to realize that.

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