Memorial Day is my least favorite day of the year, and it has been for almost fourteen years. I want it to be a day where I honor the lives of the brothers and sisters I’ve lost by celebrating with my friends and family, but I’m not there yet. And I’m not sure I ever will be.
I’m working on it.
I know that every last one of them would want me, and all of us, to live and celebrate life and make the most of every fleeting minute we have with our friends and families. And they’d want us to be happy this weekend.
But I never am happy on Memorial Day.
I feel loss and pain and guilt and shame. I think about my brothers and sisters the whole weekend, and so often throughout the year. I wish they were still here with us. I miss them every day, but especially this weekend.
Every year as a kid, my folks took me to a Memorial Day service at our local cemetery. The ceremonies were solemn, but the symbolism made it almost feel like a celebration. I didn’t, and I couldn’t, understand why the World War II and Korean and Vietnam vets choked back tears. I can now.
I haven’t been to a Memorial Day service since my first deployment. I’m embarrassed about that, but I’ve felt the way my soul breaks every time the first shots of the 21-gun salute rip through the air at a funeral. I know I can’t keep it together. Maybe next year. Maybe not.
But I don’t think any of my friends would care about whether I spent my morning at a memorial service. And I know that every last one of them would give me shit for mourning their loss and for crying. And sometimes imagining the things they’d say makes me laugh and even smile.
Yet I also still mourn and cry. A lot. Usually when no one can see. Because it’s still hard for me to understand why it was them and not me, and to ever know what their deaths were for.
With time, though, I’m beginning to realize that the story of what their lives was for isn’t something that’s finished. It’s still being written, and it’s up to us to write it with our own lives every day.
My former boss, General (Ret.) Martin Dempsey has spoken eloquently about how we can’t undo the past, but we can “Make It Matter.” If you haven’t heard him talk about this, you should now at the video below.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Mark Hertling, who also served with Dempsey, carries out a similar tradition. He calls us to “Go Silent” (and does himself) and he remembers those he served with who sacrificed their lives while he commits to Make It Matter through his future actions.
This box carries 253 cards with photos of those I served with in combat who made the ultimate sacrifice. On Memorial Day weekend I will #GoSilent for 1 minute for each, reflecting on their service, thinking about what might have been, and dedicating my future actions to them. pic.twitter.com/IqUmMz1Pji
— Mark Hertling (@MarkHertling) May 24, 2018
All of us will Make It Matter in our own ways and some of us will Go Silent, but I’ve got some thoughts I’d like to share about how we can honor the lives and sacrifices of the friends I’ve lost. About how we can Make It Matter. I’m speaking for myself, but I think they’d agree.
If you’re a vet or service member struggling with PTSD, anxiety, or depression or other mental health issues this weekend or anytime, you’re not the only one. I’ve struggled with depression and I’ve thought about suicide. So have many others.
Even if you’re not a vet, you might be struggling with loss, pain, or mental health issues. You might have lost someone too.
The most powerful message I’ve heard on loss and grief was when my former boss Vice President Joe Biden talked to families of the fallen at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).
Please reach out if you’re struggling. I wish I’d done so sooner than I did. If you don’t know who to talk to, my DMs are open.
We honor no one by giving up on our own lives. Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but it’s all worth living and fighting.
But as Susan Hennessey says, Making It Matter isn’t just about Memorial Day Weekend or about us. It’s about our future commitments to our Nation and our veterans.
Memorial Day gratitude is lovely. We actually *honor* the fallen when we pay our troops enough, heal their seen and unseen wounds, educate their children, support their spouses, and ensure our national choices are guided by a desire to never unnecessarily place them in harms way.
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) May 26, 2018
So no matter what your views are or whether you support or oppose recent wars, participate in our democracy. Be informed. Exercise your free speech. Honor service members’ sacrifices by ensuring that every sacrifice we ask current and future service members to make is worth it. If you’re a civilian and you want to thank someone for their service this weekend, that’s okay but know it’s hard for some of us. Don’t be flippant. Ask questions and be willing to listen, but know we might not be ready to talk.
If you’re a vet or you’ve lost someone, don’t rant about how it’s inappropriate to say Happy Memorial Day or milsplain the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. Be grateful for the support we have and share stories about your friends if you can. Talking about the brothers and sisters you’ve lost can be hard. It’s tough for me in some cases because I genuinely loved some of the friends I lost. It’s hard in other cases because a few of the people I lost could be real assholes and the last conversation I had with one of them was shit.
But one of the blessings I have is that every time I think about those I’ve lost (even the a-holes) is that I picture them smiling. In fact, the one time I had to personally eulogize one of my soldiers, I spent most of the time talking about his smile. It was so contagious.
I know that every last one of them would want us to have a Happy Memorial Day. They’d want us to BBQ or go to the beach and celebrate their lives and their sacrifices with our friends and families. And just because I’m not ready to do that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
But you should also find time to reflect. To think about their sacrifices. To think about how you can, and how you will, Make It Matter. I’m pretty sure that would make the brothers and sisters I’ve lost happy, even on Memorial Day weekend.
These views are the views of the author and do not represent the official positions of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the United States Mission to NATO.