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Memorial Day Reflections

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • June 2nd, 2007
  • 15 min read

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Memorial Day is a holiday in the USA celebrated on the last Monday of May. Its purpose is to ‘memorialize’ the war dead of our armed forces from all of our wars and military actions, though during times of war we’ll often see special ceremonies or television specials observed for our most recent dead and these are often disguised (often weakly) as political propaganda. I’m not going to get into the merits of the war on Iraq, but I will mention that in the USA our military members are not policy makers. We are tools of our political system and are as often misused as we are well used. The men and women of our armed forces sacrifice for their country in many ways and being apolitical deserve none of the wrath the war opposition unleashes on our political leaders. There should be a clear and distinct line between our professional soldiers and the political body who commands them. I say this because what I’m about to discuss is not political in nature and would rather readers focus on their duty and sacrifice without confusing them with our political masters who many currently find distasteful.

Growing up Memorial Day was nothing more to me than a long weekend when some of the old men in my neighborhood hung American flags outside their homes. It was a holiday. It took me many years to actually stop and think about what this day meant and to whom. Living in Thailand it would be easy to not observe the day at all if not for the news channels carrying coverage and the movie channels showing old war movies. I suppose most of us can relate to holidays like this in our own countries, holidays with meaning that mostly goes unnoticed as the masses take to the roads and beaches to enjoy the extra time off from work. I want to share with you how I came to appreciate Memorial Day and how I’m spending this Memorial Day in a special way.

Even though I was serving in our armed forces I didn’t stop to consider what Memorial Day really meant until a good friend was killed and it became my duty to escort him back home to his family. The experience will live with me forever, the circumstances of his death, the others that died the same day, feeling guilty I’d made it and he didn’t, going through the airports in my dress uniform and having fellow passengers whisper among themselves but not say a word to me, and the look on his families faces during the service. Flying back into the theatre days later I hoped to never repeat that experience again, but it came to pass that I would. It was after this first experience that I started actually thinking what Memorial Day stood for instead of just looking at it as another holiday.

I don’t know a lot about my family history but I do know my Father served in a war zone during the Korean war and made it through unscathed. Later I’d find myself in a war zone without a single thought about anyone but myself and my men. I never stopped to think about my parents, grandparents, children, siblings, and other family and friends who were all right there with me.. even though I never stopped to realize it, or give them credit for it. At least I never stopped to think about it until my son shipped out with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit in the run up to the war in Iraq.

Many assume I wanted my son to join the military and even pushed him towards it. I didn’t. I never talked about my service at home, never posted memorabilia around the house to encourage, and instead pushed education and self reliance and put money away in their college funds hoping my sons would never wear the uniform. I suppose it was wishful thinking on my part because my sons were there when I went through my many surgeries and years of rehab and they knew the price I paid for my choices even if it was something we never discussed. Instead, we’d talk about their plans for the future, degree programs they were interested in, and having learned that setting the example is the proper way to lead I even went back to school to complete some advanced degrees just so they’d know how much I believed in education and the opportunities it afforded.

Imagine my surprise when on my sons 16th birthday he came home with a permission slip for me to sign so he could join the Marine Corps! He’d taken the high school equivalency test without my knowledge and was now standing in front of me as a man would, logically and dispassionately presenting his case in the hope I’d be convinced and sign the papers. I didn’t. Yes, I inside I was fairly bursting with pride and at the same time fear and dread, but on the outside I displayed anger and betrayal and told him how disappointed I’d be if he didn’t go to college. When that didn’t work I tried to get him to go to college and then join as an officer knowing that in another four years he could change his mind entirely. He didn’t budge. He’d grown up and at 16 was man enough to confront me knowing I’d be disappointed and hurt. He stood straight and tall, eyes and face unyielding, and waited for my answer. Walking back and forth across the living room I knew he’d never buy any of the excuses or distractions I was thinking of and I knew this would be a telling moment in his life. I stopped and looking him straight in the eye told him I wouldn’t sign the papers. Not this year. I told him that in one year if he was standing before me one more time asking then I’d sign them then without question. Knowing my decisions are final on such important matters he thanked me for not getting angry and taking the permission forms from my hand went back to his room for the night. In the alcove I saw movement and the small body of my youngest and knew he’d witnessed the exchange.

Nothing more was said during the next year, but at the end of the year to the day he was back in front of me with the permission forms. Perhaps to hedge his bets, perhaps because he knew how strongly I felt about this, he presented a new case. This time he wanted to join the Marine Corp reserves while attending college in the engineering program he’d been preparing for. I’ll give him credit, he made a great case and I found myself thinking “how often do the reserves get called up?” In front of him I signed the papers, shook his hand, and told him I was proud of him and respected his choices. Less than a month later he was on a bus bound for MCRD San Diego and I wouldn’t see him again for three months. He left a week before his 17th birthday and was the youngest recruit during his entire stay. Later he was the youngest Marine for his first Marine Corp Birthday and as the youngest Marine he cut the cake with the oldest Marine. Even though he was young I didn’t worry much about him during boot camp. We’d spent a lot of time outdoors and more time on the range than many Marines ever do. Tracking, shooting, map reading, survival skills, as a boy we’d done them all together as recreational activities because somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking “what if” and if “what if” happened I wanted him to be prepared.

It was a fine weekend in San Diego when he graduated. The Marines host the families for the entire weekend and not just a few hour graduation event. I went to all the activities with all the other parents and family paying attention to every word like I’d never retired from the service myself. When the ceremonies started and the companies formed up and presented to the audience the Commanding Officer started reading out awards earned during their stay. My son, the youngest man there, earned several awards including the highest scores with firearms which really didn’t surprise me. We had a fine weekend and then he was off to another state to begin his university days and would only be required to serve one weekend a month and two weeks every year. It was 1999 and I figured with the state of the world he’d be safe in his dorm room or classes for the next four years.

I was living on Latphrao in Greenery house that September and had just turned on my computer to read the news while enjoying a late supper of fried rice prepared by the food cart vendor outside the gates. Immediately my eyes went to my Yahoo home page where I saw the headline “Plane Crashes into WTC” and reading further it didn’t say much, not which type of plane, nothing except more news was coming. Feeling dread in the pit of my stomach I flipped on the television to CNN and saw my first images of the smoking World Trade Center and for the next 48 hours I didn’t move from in front of the set except to use the bathroom or get more soda. During this time my apartment manager knocked on my door and told me how sorry she was this happened to my country and everywhere I went for the next few weeks Thai people I didn’t even know would ask me if I was American and when I said I was they’d offer their condolences and say how sorry they were. Nothing they said really helped, I knew what was coming.

Touching down in Kuwait I immediately felt the familiar heat and smells and wondered if I would be able to track him down. I’d managed to land the first of several gigs that allowed me access to the troops as they prepared to cross into Iraq. Despite the many promises of help I never did track him down, but I did get to meet and interview many like him and somehow it felt better being there even if I had to carry around a NBC kit with all my cameras and gear. I didn’t know it, but he was in the first wave across the border that night. A week later I was back in the USA trying to land a gig embedded but no one would take me because of my condition. For the next eight months I practically lived in front of the television and computer trying in vain to keep myself informed as to his whereabouts and duties. I’d learned he saw his first action and lost his first Marines not even 48 hours into the war and things stayed pretty hectic the entire year he was there. I finally felt what my family and friends had felt 13 years before. My youngest would watch the news with me and we’d talk about the war and what his brother was doing and for his age he seemed to understand pretty well.

When he came home he was very thin and looked tired. Some where out in the desert he’d decided to become a school teacher instead of an engineer and changing his major he went back to classes but without the innocence he left with. It’s hard to describe how he’d changed, mostly he just seemed to have aged at least ten years and became a lot more serious about life. He started coaching a kid’s baseball team and really started taking an interest in children and spending all his free time doing what he could to help kids who had lost a parent for whatever reason. Later I found out why, but that’s not for here. He’d changed and while you couldn’t say it was for the worse, it was hard to say it was for the better.

Before that term was up he was notified he’d be shipping out for his second combat tour and soon he was gone again. By now things had improved on the ground and with my contacts I was able to make several trips over during his tour and kept track of him a lot better. I wondered how parents without such contacts coped? I wondered when did I go from the soldier on the ground to the worried parent? How did I make it through two decades of service and not have any clue on how my parents felt when my unit was called up? It was during this time that I began to realize how little of a clue I had about how my family was feeling or what they were thinking, I was so focused on my job and my men that I’d totally neglected my family. At the time I didn’t think I had, but hindsight being the great tool it is can teach us a lot.

My son was lucky. He made it back from his second tour and completing his obligation left the Marine Corp without a word of regret. We still haven’t talked much about his experiences and I’m not surprised as I’ve never talked to anyone about mine. When do you talk about it? I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right to talk about it to ‘strangers’ and if you weren’t with my unit and wearing dog tags then you were a stranger. Perhaps we stay quiet as a measure of respect to those who were there, and those who didn’t come home. It’s not necessary to understand everything, it’s only necessary to know you can’t understand everything. My son is back at the university and will soon graduate and begin teaching classes. He married a young girl with two kids and cares for them as his own. My son the man.

Memorial Day, Thailand. Is it a coincidence my son took his vacation over this holiday to spend with me here in Thailand? He’s only been here two days and so far we’ve hit a few night markets, Muay Thai, and spent a lot of time talking about his university and his new family. We don’t talk about his service. I’m really looking forward to showing him around the Kingdom over the next few weeks.

Memorial Day, Thailand. Is it a coincidence that my youngest called me today? He hasn’t called me in a month, at 14 he’s been competing in Tae Kwon Do tournaments and preparing for final exams at his private school. This Friday he’ll fly in to spend the next two weeks with his brother, and the next few months with me. The young boy in the alcove that night was my youngest. Gifted both intellectually and physically he told me three years ago he’ll be attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis and serving as a Naval Aviator upon gradation. We’ve talked about the difficulties of being accepted but he’s not concerned. He knows the requirements and having aced the math portion of the SAT’s while in the 7th grade and earning his black belt before age eleven, he’s confident in both his physical and mental abilities. He passed his ground school test years ago but his mom won’t let him take the flying part until he’s 16. I’ve caught him on several occasions taking my old flight helmet from its bag and just staring at it. The kid has been on a mission since the day his brother told me he was going to join the Marines and while I’m not as smart as either of them, I’m smart enough to know my only choice is to support them both.

Memorial Day, Thailand. Today I give thought to my Father at a time when his ship was shelling Kaesong hoping they wouldn’t be attacked by a Chinese submarines, thoughts of my older sons two tours in Iraq, and thoughts of my youngest sons future service never leave my mind. On any television station I can watch the stories of the thousands of young men and women and their families who have served all over the world at the request of their political leaders and the citizens of my country who brought their leaders to this awesome position of power and responsibility. I realize I see Memorial Day much differently than I used to years before. I’ve lived and I’ve fought, and I’ve raised children, and I’ve grieved. It makes no difference if I’m in Washington DC or Bangkok Thailand, my heart and mind is with my children and all the children who have served. And the children, much like the young boy in the alcove.. who will serve. Note to self: Remember to take down the flag at sundown, you’re now an old man..

Until Next Time…

Stickman's thoughts:

I too find myself reminsicing and thinking when it comes to public holidays from home. It's funny really, Thai public holidays have little to no meaning to me, not being Buddhist surely being a major factor.