Memorial Day Weekend marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer. Here in America, many songs have been written about summer that conjure up images of fun and laughter and all the good things that life can bring. In other parts of the world, spring, followed by summer, marks the fighting season.
I served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 as an Army surgeon with the 344th Combat Support Hospital. Coming home on Memorial Day Weekend 2006, I had the chance to be out on a boat, the wind in my face, without armor for the first time in a year, and I never felt more free.
The surreal feeling of being home, away from those that want to kill you, is both wonderful and strangely melancholy. I saw people just going about their lives. They were going to the mall, going fishing, going to work, and they seemed detached from the world’s problems. I heard people calling talk radio to scream about a pitcher giving up a home run. Really? Do they not know what is going on in the world?
My peace of mind came when the thought occurred to me: if your only worry is shopping, or who wins the game, or what time you’re going to church, then we must be doing our job. Many have given of their lives, so that you need not worry.
When I was a child, I watched the TV show “Combat” with my Dad. It was about American heroes fighting Nazi Germany in WWII. From having watched that show, the thought of “serving” never left my mind. I wondered who were the people that stepped up to defend us. Now, I know. Our all-volunteer military is made up of exceptional people that make exceptional actions seem ordinary.
Yet, every service member is vulnerable. Army chaplain, Fr. Timothy Vakoc, who was injured in Iraq in 2004 and succumbed to his wounds in 2008, once said, “I think that the safest place for me to be is in the center of God’s will, and if that’s in the line of fire, that’s where I’ll be.” Like so many throughout our history, Fr. Vakoc said, “Send me.” He did not “lose” his life, Fr .Vakoc “gave” his life.
I remember seeing a Marine praying his rosary as we took his buddy in to the operating room. I remember the feeling an hour later when I had to tell him that his friend did not survive. I remember those we saved. I remember those we did not.
“Bombs bursting in air” is a different visual for me today. “Land of the free, and the home of the brave” means so much more. Those that have been to war appreciate peace the most.
To me, life is a part time job, both to endure and to enjoy, and to await our final reward. While many of our troops complete their earthly mission too soon, the positive effects of their works will never perish.
In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller, as he is dying, says, “Earn this.” That is up to us to do. Are we creating a brotherhood and sisterhood that those who died for us would be proud of? Are those who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf able to say, “You were worth it”?
This Memorial Day Weekend, laugh and play. Spend time with loved ones. Be grateful for every ounce of freedom that you enjoy. Take time to look up to the heavens and say “thank you!” Remember that your happiness, your life opportunities, your freedom are the very reasons that those we memorialize this weekend gave of their lives. When you go to bed at night, and you feel safe, secure, and unafraid… remember why.