Memorial Day began as a day to honor and remember soldiers killed in the Civil War, but now, in every national and state military cemetery, American flags are placed on the graves of all who have served.
On this sacred day, walk around in one of those cemeteries and read the names etched on marble gravestones. Reflect for a moment of their service, and their all too often, very brief lives. Quietly thank them, or render a salute if you have also served.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
— In Flanders Field, by Lt. Col. John McCrae
As you walk those hallowed grounds, you’ll see elderly siblings standing by the grave of a brother killed decades ago in the jungles of Vietnam in places too difficult for younger generations to pronounce – Ia Drang, Ap Bac, Khe Sanh. These siblings talk quietly with each other, still mourning, still loving.
Standing by another grave might be the surviving children of a World War II veteran who may have served in the Battle of the Bulge, Battle of Midway, Anzio or a thousand other battles of that war. Those children are eternally grateful for the good life of that veteran.
Not far off, in an area of newer burials, you’ll likely find the still tearful family of a loved one killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. They may quietly ask themselves “why,” but the answer is illusive in these divisive times.
A few months ago, The New York Times published an article titled “The Gift of Shared Grief,” the subtitle of which was, “It’s hard to know what to say to people in mourning. Say something anyway.”
I’ve found the essence of that subtitle to be true over and over again as I talked with grieving Gold Star families from the Vietnam War era to our present wars. I often didn't know what to say to those family members, but they deeply appreciated just talking with me about their loved one. Please listen, and let them share their memories and their grief.
Continue walking among these sacred graves and you’ll hear uncountable stories being told.
Pvt. Gilbert Vallett rests in loneliness among 140,000 other veterans in Fort Logan National Cemetery. He worked as a timberman in forests bordering Canada when drafted to serve in the trench warfare of World War I. Broken in body, mind and spirit, Gilbert lived the remaining 40 years of his life in the Veterans Hospital for the Insane in Sheridan, Wyoming. We remember and honor him.
On a quieter day, take a group of young people to see these graves, and the saying “Freedom isn’t free” takes on a poignant, real meaning. Staff Sgt. Robert Pruden, a 20-year-old native of St. Paul, Minn., was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He died on Nov. 20, 1969, in Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam, yet his efforts in combat that day saved the lives of his reconnaissance team members. We remember and honor him.
The cremated remains of Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt rest beneath his gravestone. He felt called to serve his country in the Army and was beloved by his fellow soldiers and commanding officer. Andrew was killed in action by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan on Feb. 27, 2011, and thus became the first openly gay service member to die after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed. We remember and honor him.
There are millions of other stories waiting to be told and heard.
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.
— “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak,” by Archibald MacLeish.
Wes Davey, American Fork, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant, is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace.
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