MEMORIAL DAY - 2008
MEMORIAL DAY - WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
For many Americans the Memorial Day holiday means the official launch of summer. That extra day we tack onto the weekend today means that, under normal circumstances, tens of millions of Americans drive somewhere to enjoy the holiday. Few really take the time to contemplate what this holiday is all about.
JOE BELL'S COLUMN TODAY
This morning my friend and Daily Pilot columnist, Joe Bell, presents us with his take on Memorial Day, HERE. As usual, Joe does a great job of describing his recollections of "his war" and the reluctance of many who fought during WWII to tell their stories.
HEARING THE STORIES
Joe is right. The generation that fought and won WWII - Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" - are leaving us at the rate of around 1,000 per day. The pool of human spirit that locked arms and fought to defend our country, and later built it into the dominant industrial and economic power in the world, will soon be gone and with them may go many untold stories of heroism, valor and sacrifice that the rest of us really do need to hear.
The same can be said for those who fought in "my war" - the Viet Nam Conflict. That war - yes, it was a war - cost us more than 58,000 young Americans and tore at the very fabric of our country for more than a decade. Unlike WWII, where most Americans pulled together to defeat the common enemy and later build our country, "Viet Nam" became a metaphor for derision and anger. The societal wounds opened by that war continue to fester to this day, more than thirty years following the end of hostilities.
My peers who fought in that war have also been reluctant to talk about their experiences. The combination of the pure horror of war and the fact that the Viet Nam war was so unpopular have kept many of them mute over all these years.
MY COUSIN'S UNTOLD STORY
I have a cousin who is a couple years younger than me. He came to California from his home in the Midwest to attend school while I was in the Army in the mid-1960s. When my tour of service ended I returned home and, when the semester ended, he went back home to continue his education at Kent State University. As fate would have it, he was drafted and became an infantry soldier in Viet Nam. He survived his tour of service and went on with his life. Despite being part of a very supportive family, with three younger brothers and a sister, he never discussed his experiences in the war with anyone - not even his wife.
LETTING IT ALL OUT
Then, a few years ago, we traveled to his home for the marriage of his daughter. After all the turmoil that surrounds such an event was over and the kids were on their honeymoon my cousin and I sat at his kitchen table late one night, just kind of unwinding from the event, when he began taking about Viet Nam. Once he started talking it all just kind of poured out.
THREE PURPLE HEARTS
He spoke of the three purple hearts he received for wounds sustained in battle. He spoke of the near-misses he'd experienced beyond those three injuries. For example, as he and his platoon woke one morning to head out on patrol, one of his mates accidentally stepped on my cousin's glasses, which he had placed carefully beside the leg of his bunk. Although my cousin was willing to go on patrol without his glasses, his platoon sergeant refused to permit him to join them and he remained behind until a replacement pair could be sent from Saigon. That morning two dozen men left on patrol. None returned. They were caught in an ambush and slaughtered along a dark jungle trail.
In another incident my cousin was on patrol when one of his compatriots discovered an unexploded LAWS rocket. That's a projectile fired from a disposable, light-weight launcher that some American and South Vietnamese troops carried. His sergeant was furious about finding an unexploded round, blamed it on improper use of the weapon and told my cousin to pick it up and take it back with them to their camp where there would be a class about how to properly use it. My cousin refused because it was a "live" round and could explode any time. After a short argument the sergeant had another man bring it back with them.
LESSONS LEARNED THE HARD WAY
The next day one of my cousins mates came to fetch him for the class, which was to be held in a bunker within the compound. My cousin told his friend that he wasn't going anywhere near that thing because it was still a live round. As he said those words they heard an explosion. The round blew up and killed or severely wounded 17 soldiers, including the sergeant and their platoon leader.
THE HORROR OF WAR
Listening to his stories that late night at his kitchen table I realized that my cousin's experience in Viet Nam was very similar to that of the character Charlie Sheen portrayed in the movie, "Platoon".
STORIES YET TO BE TOLD
Those men, who served our country in an unpopular war, deserve our respect for their service, too. They deserve to have their stories heard. The young men and women who volunteer to serve this country today in distant venues, like Afghanistan and Iraq, also deserve respect for their service and sacrifice. They, too, have stories to tell. We need to listen to them and thank them for their service to our country.
A GRATEFUL NATION SAYS THANKS
Today, Memorial Day, 2008, would be a good time to begin that process.