Most holidays don’t mean a lot to me, save for a couple. Veterans Day is one. The other is Memorial Day.
When I think of a day like Monday, I think of my father, himself a veteran whose six brothers also served. His brother-in-law, my uncle, was killed in the Korean War, long before I was born. I’ve only known him as “Uncle Ski,” a name and not even a face of our family lore.
My Uncle Bob barely made it out of Korea alive. He was one of the Chosin Few, the members of the 1st Marine Division who were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Chinese fighters who poured across the border near the Chosin Reservoir as China entered the war. The wind chill plummeted to 50 degrees below zero as the Marines fought their way through and out of a frozen hell.
My oldest brother was a Marine and he once asked Uncle Bob, a pleasant, affable and very funny guy, what combat was like.
“Pray it’s something you never have to go through,” he said.
On a day like Monday, I start thinking about some of the young and not so young soldiers I’ve known, like Sgt. Jeremy Doyle, who wanted to die behind the wheel of his lawnmower after his deployment for the invasion of Iraq was finished. He planned on getting out of the service. Instead, he stayed in. He didn’t die cutting his grass in Indiana as an old man. He died a young soldier, along with three others from 3/69 Armor Battalion, when their vehicle was blown to shreds two years ago. He left behind a 21-year-old widow.
I think of Brian Mintzlaff, who left behind a steady, well-paying job as a printer in Texas to do something for his country after 9/11. He, too, did not survive a second tour of duty in Iraq.
I think about the families of soldiers I’ve met, dozens of them, over the last few years, families whose son, brother or husband isn’t coming home — ever. I think about how worried they said they were about their loved one going into the service and going overseas. I also remember how proud they were of what they did.
There are those times when I think about Gary Gordon and Randall Shugart. Gordon and Shugart were two Special Forces soldiers in a helicopter above the honeycombed streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. A Blackhawk helicopter — Super 64 — had gone down. Gordon and Shugart asked for permission to be dropped to the crash site to protect whoever might be still alive.
Eventually, they got the go-ahead to rope down to the smashed helicopter and to the side of injured pilot Mike Durant. They knew there was no rope to go back to their own helicopter. They knew there was no rescue force coming. They knew this was it.
I think about Birgit Smith, who carries on every day with the memory of her late husband, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, felled by the final bullet of a firefight at the Baghdad International Airport where he killed dozens of Iraqis and saved dozens of his own comrades from being overrun.
For Birgit and thousands of others waiting for a soldier in uniform to march across a field or get off a plane who never will, every day is Memorial Day.
So it should be for the rest of us as we think about those who have given everything they have and more in defense of our freedom and the freedoms of billions of others around the world.