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Memorial Day is no celebration

Updated on June 8, 2012

One must tread cautiously about Memorial Day.

For, what, 90 percent of Americans it is the sacred grilling day, the starter’s gun for the real summer, not the artificial one that runs from solstice to solstice, but the one that marks the beginning of beaches, bathing suits and barbecue.

For others, it has more somber meaning.

For years, we remembered those who died in World War II. We bought poppies from old men in VFW uniforms—or was it American Legion--to wear in our lapels. They had white hair and service caps at a jaunty angle, and they hung out in brick buildings with a picture of a naked lady over the bar and the lingering smell of stale beer. I guess I won’t ask where they are now.

World War I was safer. Maybe someone remembered a relative who died in World War I, but World War II was more recent and many of us had a loved one who died in it. But Memorial Day isn’t really about the other casualties, the faceless men, pretty much all of them men, the other men who died during that war to end all wars. It was a personal day of remembrance for the person we remembered that happened to be observed by everyone else in the country at the same time. It is about Uncle Bob, buried somewhere in France, looking out of the photo on the mantle from before he shipped out, his warm smile undiminished after all these years dead.

Alexandria National Cemetery
Alexandria National Cemetery | Source

Now come the survivors of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not so distant wars, not so much wars to save the world as wars to…. Okay, I'm not sure exactly. In Iraq we knew that we were preventing Saddam Hussein from using the weapons of mass destruction he had stockpiled.

Well, of course, he hadn’t but since we were already there….

Afghanistan is easier. The government is corrupt, their own citizens killing each other. We are fighting there because….

Oh, dear, I thought I had it, but once I get past “so that it won’t self-destruct….”

But then there are so many other countries that are in desperate straits: Tibet, Pakistan, North Korea, African countries whose names we used to know but now they have changed or we forgot. Burma.II am not sure how we which ones deserve to be the final stand for our American boys.

The wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan are fresh, and every day brings new names of the freshly fallen to add to the roles of those to be remembered. Their families, friends, loved ones are still mourning their fresh loss, and others will be called to do so before we have left Afghanistan to its own devices-- improvised explosive devices—one faction attacking another. Tribes fighting other tribes, and themselves, and the population wandering in a miasma of wounds, bloody and psychological.

And Vietnam, the war no one really wants to talk about. Oh, sure, we have the memorial on the Mall. Strong, handsome, dark and brooding. Survivors and family members make rubbings of the names of those whose memories they recall as faded photographs or have created anew to replace the ones they used to have.

Vietnam is the war that lingers like a migraine hangover. For those who survived, it is memories of the kids who didn’t return, our buddies, forever youthful, fresh-faced, fresh meat. We don’t look at the names on the wall for fear of discovering names we didn’t know were there, or names that mean too much, of seeing long-forgotten faces suddenly staring vacantly from the reflection between the names. We avert out eyes and teens and twenty-somethings sadly recall the grandparents they never knew, or know only from the recollections of those who have been able to recall them as the men we wish they had been. or might have become.

For those who survived, survival, 40 years after the end of the war, has become a challenge. At an age that employers find unattractive, we, the veterans of that unpopular war, we, who faced disdain and insults after the war, we, who did not hear "thank you for yout service" from the distorted faces of the spitting protesters still coughing up tear gas they inhaled enjoying the freedom of speech we protected and they scorned. We are are now among the first called, the first chosen when staff/cost reductions become necessary. Or attractive.

We do have Rolling Thunder, an aging horde of gray or balding Harley riders, who memorialize their lost comrades, brothers and youth..on throaty, growling machines only a few can even afford. We have banners and pins for POW/MIAs.

But, like other vets, Vietnam veterans have a five-point advantage for federal jobs. A five-point advantage labeled “Vietnam veteran” or “Vietnam-era veteran.”

“Vietnam era.” What else does that convey to an employer? It giveth and it taketh away. The “Vietnam era” ended 40 years ago. The 18, 19, 20-year olds, the 22, 23 year-olds who entered the military then, when Vietnam was chewing up soldier-fodder as fast as we could provide it. These veterans, 62, 63, 64? enjoy a five-point edge balanced by thier antiquity. Self-identifying as a Vietnam vet is still a double-edged sword, after all these years. Odd how unattractive these 63-year-old Vietnam vets seem, especially when more recent veterans, young men and women recently returned.

Memorial Day is a time to reflect, a time to remember.

Bless the men and women who died for their country. Appreciate the men and women who served. Pray for the pain of those who were left behind.

And don’t burn the burgers.

I’m ready for my barbecue, Mr. de Mille.

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