Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

This cartoon is an oldie, but it still summarizes my feelings about Memorial Day - I'm afraid too many people think it's just an extra day off.

On Friday, I talked to 6 different coworkers about what their plans were for the weekend.  Various answers ranged from boating and camping to family get-togethers and just relaxing.  Not one mentioned attending a ceremony or stopping by a cemetery.

Perhaps they didn't because it's a private matter for them, but it makes me wonder if the day's meaning doesn't matter to them at all.  Or at least wasn't on their radar.

The military has always been a part of my life.  It has always been a part of Mike and I's relationship.  I'm sure I'm missing a few, but here are my family and friends who have put on the uniform:

Mike - on orders stateside, Air National Guard
Sister-in-law Kara - Army veteran 
Both of my grandfathers
Both of Mike's grandfathers
Honorary brother Adam - overseas, Army
A handful of great uncles, uncles, and cousins on each side
The husband of the folks who married us and several of their children
Two former college mates (former Marine, one Navy overseas) 

Civilians, even those with deep connections to the military, have a hard time honoring vets.  What does one say or do to acknowledge a lifestyle that we deliberately didn't choose but nonetheless respect the hell out of?

Most of the veterans I know find recognition awkward and even unwarranted.  They can give you a list of reasons why a "thank you" and "a God bless" is uncomfortable:
  • I'm just doing my job.
  • I volunteered for this.
  • It was my choice.
  • I'm just doing what felt right.

It is so easy for a well-meaning civilian to see a military member in uniform and come up and shake their hand.  I've watched it happen to Mike a dozen times. Which is probably why getting him to go out to dinner in dress blues is like suggesting a root canal. 

I understand their viewpoint.  They'd rather be off the radar doing their work than receive what they consider undue gratitude.

Despite knowing this, I still feel compelled to do something today.  Without a car or nearby cemetery, my options are pretty limited.

But what, after all, does 30 minutes of one's time at a memorial service or $5 for flowers really mean?  What does it do, what can it change?

I have been questioning this heavily the last few days.  There are two answers to that question.

The pessimists, the jaded, and the skeptics will answer that it doesn't matter. Compared to the grand scheme, flowers on a tombstone does not stop war, does not fund the VA, cannot bring back a loved one, cannot alleviate battle wounds.  Nationally, it almost looks pitiful to dedicate 2 days out of the year to our service members.

The watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier would disagree.  

For me, it's about how small acts add up together.  The sheer act of focusing one's mind and energies on honoring veterans, even though incredibly small, keeps an important national dialogue open.

There was a time when veterans came home not to parades but being spit on.  There was a time when you had a better chance of becoming homeless than dying on the war front.  There was a time when veterans didn't want to or couldn't acknowledge which conflict they had been in. 

I would much rather my military loved ones feel briefly uncomfortable from a thankful civilian than be called a baby killer or cursed in public. 

The gulf between civilians and the military continues to grow farther apart.  It's hard to access what they do, wrap your head around the commitment, or identify with their hardships.  

To quote Mike, "the military experience is alien anyone." 

To me, that is precisely why the rest of us needs to continue honoring our military.  30 minutes of time in a cemetery might be better served by 30 minutes volunteering, true, but it's an accessible way for civilians to fumble for common ground.  To make the alien more approachable.  To show that while we can't understand it all, we do care tremendously. 

Because you have to care first to take action.

I hate looking at this picture.  I don't pretend to know how she is feeling, only that I can imagine it better than most.

Today, I am thankful that I don't have to go to the cemetery to visit my husband.


  1. This last picture is like a knife to my heart. Us spouses can only imagine having to live out our worst nightmare. I love this post by the way since I truly have the same feelings & wish more people would take the time to realize what these soldiers do day in and out, and what the veterans at home face when facing the VA hell of trying to get medical benefits for anything that occurred while in service. It's a sad reality that not many people know or even understand. At least those of us that do are in it together.

  2. Thanks Kristen! It took me a couple days to get my thoughts straight. I had a coworker ask me the other day, "are you a civilian spouse yet?" Thing is, you and I will *always* be military spouses, as that will always define who our guys are.

    And yeah, VA. They've been decent with Mike, but only for regularly scheduled stuff. There are some things we want to add and there's like, no way we can get through.