For teenagers in high school at this point in time, all they can think about is summer's fast approach. It's nearing the end of the school year, and everyone is anxious to hear the ring of that final bell on June 7th. For seniors, the end of their high school career is nearly here. With only three days left, most of them are concentrated on "just getting out." Before they can walk across the stage and receive their diplomas, though, they must get through this last, special three-day weekend designated to celebrate Memorial Day.
Memorial Day comes but once a year, and it always seems to pass without much recognition from teenagers. Do most of them even know what it means? Probably not. Do most of them care about it? Probably not. Do most of them only know that it means an extra day off of school? Probably. With everything that's going on in their lives right now, it's to be expected that a great number of them have no idea what Memorial Day celebrates. And that's why I'm writing this article. As a member of a military family, although, admittedly, a member of a military family that has never lost one at war, Memorial Day represents more than just another day off school. Memorial Day gives recognition to the soldiers that have died protecting America. Dictionary.com describes it as "a day, May 30, set aside in most states of the U.S. for observances in memory of dead members of the armed forces of all wars: now officially observed on the last Monday in May."
Just a few minutes ago I came across an article written by a soldier in remembrance of the fallen soldiers of the United States. It was deeply moving, extremely powerful, and well written. I'd like to share it now:
"It is the early days of January 2010 and the Company forms to the front of the memorial display at the chapel of the forward operating base in Afghanistan, the backdrop for the small shrine the crossed staffs of an American flag and the regimental colors. An M4 rifle stands upright, its bayonet lodged into a felt covered wooden desk in front of the flags; the pistol grip facing the audience. The fallen soldier's helmet rests on the weapon's butt stock, shielding it as it once did his silhouette. Two dog tags dangle from the rifle's pistol grip, their clamor in the desert wind. Below, centered on the rifle's barrel and arrayed at the position of attention, are the soldier's desert tan boots; tied, laces tucked.
Leaning against the laces is a framed portrait of the fallen: SSG (Last). A Purple Heart medallion shines prominently in front of the picture, presented in its original black silk-laden box.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the ceremony will begin in two minutes," says the Chaplain in his hospitable southern twang. The imposing Battalion and Brigade leadership files out of the chapel, programs and bios of the fallen in hand.
"Company! Atten-SHUN!" calls out the Attack Company First Sergeant, bringing the gaggle to order. I cringe contemplating how many memorials our First Sergeant has stood for in his lifetime. He has had seven deployments and two decades in the Army. "Parade REST!"
"Ladies and Gentlemen, please stand for the invocation," the Chaplain begins, "Father, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life of one of your finest servants: Staff Sergeant (First) (MI) (Last)..." My mind drifts off into the clear blue sky. I still hear the radio traffic in my head...it replays in my conscience like a broken record, "Contact! Contact! IED!...The lower half of his body! It's blown off!" That was Christmas Day 2009. My quaking cheek muscles wring a tear from my eyes.
The Battalion Commander takes the podium first. He speaks of SSG (Last)'s career and dedication to the mission. His words are kind and sincere. The Company Commander follows with (Last)'s bio: where he was born, where he enlisted. "SSG (Last) is survived by his wife and his three sons."
I see those boys, first smiling and laughing; and then I see them in horror and frantic tears upon hearing the words... "We regret to inform you..." I wonder how these children will ever open another Christmas gift again. How many nights will they bargain with God, praying at the foot of their beds: "I'll give back every single Gift I'll ever get for the rest of my life... for just one more day with my Dad..."
As the commander stands down, SSG (Last)'s Platoon Sergeant and dear friend rises for his remarks. We know his heartfelt eulogy is sure to be filled with humor, a refreshing change of pace from the sadness that overwhelms the audience. "SSG (Last) and I had some great times. There was never anything but a smile on his face. I loved watching him slap food out of his soldiers' faces. And with a dead stare and straight face, snarling "You can't eat, you're in A Co!"
SSG (Last)'s Platoon Leader speaks next. He reads from Psalm 23: "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I will fear no evil..." As the PL takes his seat, a bagpipe quintet begins its rendition of "Amazing Grace." The nasal reverberance of the pipes stuns my eardrums. It brings my conscience back to the ceremony; back to the realization... He's gone.
First Sergeant conducts an about face to address the Company. "Company! Atten-SHUN!" The 160 soldiers and officers of Attack Company snap their heels together. He begins the roll call:
"Here, First Sergeant!"
"Here, First Sergeant!"
"Here First Sergeant!"
"Staff Sergeant (Last)!"
The name of the fallen leaves the First Sergeant's tongue. The emptiness weighs on our chest. An acceptance of mortality fills the void.
"...Staff Sergeant (First) (Last)!" First Sergeant's voice grows louder with each call. He yells with a release, not of fury, but of agony.
"Staff Sergeant (FIRST) (MIDDLE) (LAST)!!" The final syllable echoes through the formation. Running noses, pulsating chests. An infectious sadness permeates through even the most distant onlooker's body.
The colorguard breaks the silence with gentle, but firm commands. "Ready, Aim, FIRE!" The commander leads his element in three volley fires. In the distance, a bugler puts brass to lip. The rhythm-less tune of taps emanates from the horn, surging the ambiance with rushed closure. The music soothes our ears, purging shivers and quivering diaphragms. Our hands continue to switch between wiping sweat from our foreheads to wiping the snot from our noses and the tears from our eyes.
The Chaplain retakes the podium for the Benediction. We bow our heads in prayer.
Four by four, soldiers march to the display and submit their tender salutes. Upon ordering arms, we got down on one knee in front of the photo. Some pray. Some talk to their friend.. Some just stare, trying to feel if this is real. (Last)'s closest friends and colleagues rip off the velcro name tapes from their soft caps and place them by his picture. I focus on his photo; he was smiling. My spirituality beckons me. I don't want to believe in God right then, but I need to. I pray for his soul. I pray he is at peace.
The hardest part about writing this piece was not the recollection of the sights and emotions of a friend's passing, but deciding what to call him. Perhaps it will mean more to you if you re-read the roll-call inserting the (First) (Middle) and (Last) name of a loved one you know serving overseas. I ask you to offer your empathy to the soldiers, wives, children, and parents who pay the bill for our freedom each day. Memorial Day comes but once a year, but for the sake of those who will go anywhere and do anything to preserve the way we live, I hope that emotion stays with you forever.
Rajiv Srinivasan served as a Stryker platoon leader in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. He hails from Roanoke, Virginia.
And that's what Memorial Day is all about. We should never forget.