Since even my grade-school days, I have known the meaning behind the day. We would head to my grandparents' summer cottage and have a family gathering most years. It involved lots of food, some fishing, and the adults enjoying a few beers and some loud conversation. It usually also involved a lot of foul language directed at the Cubs game on the radio. So, despite knowledge of its meaning, it really didn't sink into my heart or mind.
Once in uniform, I caught a little bit more of the meaning. I participated in several Memorial events from helping clean and decorate graves to some form of religious service. But, I often attempted to avoid being selected for these details preferring, instead, to stay up late and sleep later.
In early February 2003, things changed. I deployed to Kuwait and then fought the ground war against Saddam Hussayn's Iraqi army. It was not my first deployment. It was not even the first deployment where I had to shoot or was shot at. But it turned out to be the one deployment that changed my perspective dramatically.
Just as we were preparing to fire our first deep-strike salvo of missiles at key targets in Iraq in order to set conditions for 3rd ID to cross the border, I heard an explosion on the horizon. It would be a few hours before I got the news. One of my best friends was killed by a grenade. The grenade was thrown into his tent while he slept. The attacker was a traitor in a US Army uniform. Chris Seifert lay dead, never to kiss his wife again. Chris Seifert lay dead, never to hold his newborn son. The School Age Services building on Fort Huachuca is dedicated to his memory.
Chris was not the last friend I was to lose over the years of conflict. We lost a good NCO from the Brigade I was attached to. He died saving the rest of his crew. An enemy anti-armor rocket struck an ammunition carrier vehicle. Red died attempting to put out the fire and evacuate the crew.
A young HUMINT collector, Yari Mokri, was blown to vapor by an IED in early 2007. His warm laugh and personality made quite and impression upon me and his platoon. One of my other close friends was in the same patrol. She never recovered, emotionally, from the loss. I don't think any of us have.
That same year, a young Captain I worked with had changed his duties from Battalion Targeting Officer to take over his BN's scout platoon. There were things going on that had some members of the platoon and other officers from that unit facing some potential charges. I cannot discuss what I know on the subject. I can say that I worked out with Derek and other members of that platoon. We practiced martial arts together and lifted weights together. On a mission I had recommended, their helicopter crashed. There are conflicting reports. the official report currently reads "due to unforeseen mechanical failure". Half of the remaining platoon died in that crash, including Derek. I got the news early in the morning. My chief and I trashed our office when we heard the news. We had just finished cleaning the mess 2 hours later when the rest of our team arrived. They thought we were joking when we gave the news.
That same year, one of my oldest friends was blown up by an IED while on patrol near Baqubah, Iraq. Schuyler Haynes and I had been Manchus together and been deployed together several times when we were both still Infantry. I didn't find out until some time in mid 2008, just as I started preparing for my 4th tour to Iraq.
In 2009, I was at the FOB maintenance yard. It was a Friday, our day to get stuff fixed on the team's vehicles. Short and I were on top of the MRAP doing our inspection when a huge explosion rocked the earth. I hit the ground while Short just grabbed the roof of our vehicle. We then watched the fireball and secondary explosions. A quarter-mile down Marez Utility Road, a large Truck-borne IED exploded just outside of the HQ of the Iraqi Federal Police Brigade we advised. (We advised one of the BNs under it). To top it off, that BDE's entire monthly supply of vehicle fuel (gas and diesel) had just been delivered the night before. The HQ went up in flames. An MRAP carrying 5 infantry Soldiers (US Army) from one of our partner units was vaporized, except for the V-shaped hull. We went out to help recover the bits and pieces of bodies, both US Army and Iraqi. I did not know the US Soldiers. I did know several of the Iraqis that were killed, though. They were good men, fighting for their country, making money to support their wives and kids.
There are countless more names and stories I could post. I know they are countless because I used to count them. I used to count every single name of every single soldier I knew, even if just in passing. After 173, I stopped. I couldn't do it anymore. the effort to copy and paste one more name onto my list and tick that counter one number more became too difficult. I can leg-press over 1000lbs. But I couldn't manage the physical strength to move a mouse and click some computer keys. So, these are among the most vivid of my memories, these great men that WE lost.
So now I know what that far-off daze my father and grandfather both seemed to get during the pauses in merriment at those family gatherings. Both were veterans of wars to defend this country. My Grandfather was US Army Intelligence in WWII. My father served in Vietnam. I now see what they saw when they got that look: that look as though they were seeing another time and another place. I know now that they were hugging their brothers from those wars. I now know that they were doing their duty in not letting the memories of those men fade from existence. They were keeping their promises to never forget.
I never will.
That is the prologue or introduction to my latest poem. If you have made it this far in my essay, I invite and ask you to make it just a few lines more. I ask you to do so not for me, but for the meaning of Memorial Day. I ask you to do it so these great men and women look down from heaven and see they are still loved and cherished in the hearts of the citizens of this great nation.
To the brave and bold
My eternal thanks
I will never forget
Who shivered at Valley Forge
And the Minute Men
For the Freedom you gave me
I thank you
When in 1812 they came to reclaim
What was gained in 1776
Your valor retained
For that I thank you
The massacre at the Alamo
And those battles that followed
For proving our nation’s mettle
I thank you
And the Great War ensued
You who manned the trenches
Under our banner of Liberty
Standing forever stalwart
I thank you
And a genocidal tyrant ran rampant
Those who answered the call
To restore peace and freedom
For us and the world
A generation of great heroes
I thank you
To fall and bring hateful oppression
Into our world
For fortitude and bravery at Chosin
And defending Seoul with all your might
I thank you
And Soldiers who patrolled
Rice Patties, Jungle and mountains
Trying to hold back Ho Chi Minh
My father and his brothers-in-arms
I salute you
Desert Storm and freeing Kuwait
Bringing Peace to Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia
Braving the flooding rains in Albania
To end genocide in Kosovo
I thank you
And a jet crash into the Pentagon
Then answered the call
For those who fought by my side
dodging mortars and rockets
In Baghdad and Balad alike
Who charged into the mountains near Kandahar
To those who sucked sand and fumes
In Restrepo, Kirkuk, Wasit, Peshwar
Who braved bombs in Mosul and Tikrit
And didn’t make it back
I miss you.