Thoughts on Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2012, and I’m scrolling through my Twitter feed reading the various posts thanking those who gave their lives while serving in the military.

From ordinary people, from actors, from politicians, from athletes, from mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. I very much want to feel good about these exclamations of support and solidarity with those who serve, and those who have served, but at the same time I’m struggling with my feelings.

Those who know me know I am uncomfortable with being thanked for my military service, even when I know the sentiments are sincerely expressed. I didn’t join the Navy for patriotic reasons, I want to say to the thanker, I didn’t enlist to protect you, or your family.

I also didn’t re-enlist twice, or become an officer, or serve 20 years until retirement in 2003 for you. I suppose it could be argued that the public benefited from my service, and therefore I should be lauded even if my intentions were less than altruistic.

Perhaps, but it still doesn’t sit well with me.

* * *

Truthfully, I joined because there was nothing else for me to do at the time. I owed money — maybe not a lot in today’s terms, but in the early years of the 1980s it was a big sum — and had no marketable skills or job prospects. President Reagan was building up the military as part of his “Its Morning Again In America” campaign, and the door at the recruiting office was wide open.

I’m a pessimist by nature, and cynical as well, so there are times when someone around my own age thanks me for my service and instead in my mind I hear:

I’m so glad you and enough like you didn’t have any other options other than enlisting.

You stood the watch on more midnights than I can count while I was out partying, and cleaned toilets and typed reports and greased equipment and ran countless diagnostic checks and took temperature readings and stoked fires and climbed masts built latrines and field kitchens and took part in millions and millions of training exercises and drills.

While you and your brothers and sisters in arms were doing these things, I got a degree and/or started a profitable career and a family, including having some kids I likely will never let join the military, all while so many of you in uniform struggled with making ends meet.

I doubt very much if anyone in today’s military has the same feelings; by this point most all of them joined after it was “Morning in America” again, and they’ve never known anything but public support. A few will no doubt remember — crusty old Admirals and Generals, Master Chiefs and Sergeants Major — but does it do any good to recall those dark days?

The parades and adulation after Iraq-1 — as some have cynically started to call it — were welcomed and appreciated by service members, and rightly so. But for me at least, this sudden outpouring of support for the military was viewed with some suspicion.

As someone who served in the U.S. military before the “reformation” of public perception that started with Grenada and Panama, and came to full fruition with Desert Storm, I very much also want to say: Where were your thanks and support in the years after Vietnam and before Stormin’ Norman?

Where were you after the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 220 Marines, 18 Navy and three Army, and injured an additional 60? That terrorist attack happened the day after I married my wife, and just two days before the invasion of Grenada, yet in the midst of a muddled and poorly thought-out policy such a loss of life in the service of our nation is rarely recalled these days.

* * *

Not long after Beirut a Chief Hospital Corpsman assigned to my command put on his helmet, got on his motorcycle to go home, and 20 minutes later was dead after being hit by a car. Around the same time a young Sailor died in a warehouse in a shipyard. He was on his way back to the ship after a night on the town and for whatever reason decided to climb the stacks of crates in the warehouse, pulling himself higher and higher until he grabbed an electrified rail attached to a crane.

I also recall two suicides, one at the midpoint and the other near the end of my career. One was a junior officer and the other a senior petty officer. Both of these Sailors felt extreme pressures which were known, but underestimated by those around them. For one the self-imposed drive to excel after transitioning from enlisted to officer, for the other the strain of an unfaithful spouse who threatened legal action to bar access to the couple’s children in the midst of a divorce.

As much as the men and women who fought and died, like the Marines, Sailors and Soldiers in Beirut, these four who served and died on active duty deserve remembrance by the public at large. On this Memorial Day, 2012, I am thinking about them and the thousands like them whose passing went unnoticed by the public.

I am also thinking of the men and women who I served with, who served before me and who serve now, after my time in uniform has passed.

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