By Ray Starmann
Memorial Day Weekend is fast approaching and with it the usual consumer chaos that surrounds the holiday more than its true meaning; to honor those who have died in our nation’s wars.
Last Memorial Day, I was inside the grocery store here in sunny Southern California. I stood in an aisle watching the mayhem all around me. Shoppers were over-running the place as they threw cases of beer, steaks and bags of chips into their carts. As I looked on, I saw an older gentleman standing next to me. He was a tall figure who wore a WWII Veteran ball cap. He seemed to notice my 7th Cavalry ball cap as well.
“They just don’t get it.” I said to him.
“They never will.” The WWII vet said to me. We talked for a while as we looked on at the madness around us. He told me he had been a B-17 pilot and had flown missions over Nazi Germany. I told him about my service with the 7th Cavalry in the Gulf War.
Even though he was at least 40 years older than me, I had more in common with him at that moment than I would have had with any of the maniacal shoppers racing through the aisles.
Today, I was back in the same grocery store. When I was checking out, the cashier told me excitedly that she had Memorial Day off and couldn’t wait to party.
What did Jesus say on the cross? Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.
The attitude of the people in the store last year, the callous and quite clueless attitude of the young girl checking me out today is symptomatic of how the whole nation now looks upon Memorial Day in 2016.
With the majority of Americans never having served in the military in peacetime or war, we now have a whole nation oblivious about the true meaning of the holiday.
It is not now, nor has it ever been just a day for barbecues, boating, beer drinking and softball games.
It seems that veterans are the only ones who understand and treasure the true meaning of Memorial Day. Many vets have not only seen the horrors of war, but have lost friends in war. To a vet, Memorial Day can never just be a day at the beach with hot dogs and Frisbees.
The number of Americans killed in action in US wars since and including the American Revolution equals 664,000 combat deaths and including non-combat deaths, 1.3 million, plus 1.5 million US service personnel wounded in battle.
Even vets from other countries seem to understand more about Memorial Day than our own citizens. Twenty-five years ago, I was riding in a taxi at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany. The driver, a German, had a red poppy attached to the steering wheel. When I enquired why he was displaying the poppy on an American holiday, he remarked, “We are all Kamaraden. We are all comrades.”
He went on to tell me that he had served in U Boats in WWII. Considering that three fourths of the U Boat crews went to their deaths, he was not only a respectful man, but a lucky one as well. Yep, even the guys trying to blow our heads off 70 years back, have more reverence for the holiday than many Americans.
“We are all comrades.”
We are indeed.
The true sadness of Memorial Day is remembering the hundreds of thousands of young men and women who died in the prime of their lives. They never had the chance to stand in the booze aisle and decide whether to buy a case of Budweiser or Corona. They never had a chance to return home and have a cheeseburger. They never had a chance to fulfill their individual dreams. They never had another chance to “party.”
It seems hard or nearly impossible for the narcissistic, shallow, callous, America of 2016 to contemplate supreme sacrifice and true patriotism. Americans are too caught up in taking another selfie or liking some banal video on Facebook, to focus on the battlefield deaths of WWII, or even the most recent casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is up to veterans to continue the Memorial Day traditions of wreath laying and parades and to try and impart the real meaning of the day to especially young Americans.
Perhaps General MacArthur said it the most eloquently in his speech at West Point in 1962, when he described the eternal sacrifices of American service personnel:
My estimate of him was formed on the battlefields many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then, as I regard him now, as one of the world’s noblest figures; not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless.
His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me, or from any other man.
But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism.
From one end of the world to the other, he has drained deep the chalice of courage. As I listened to those songs of the glee club, in memory’s eye I could see those staggering columns of the First World War, bending under soggy packs on many a weary march, from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle deep through mire of shell-pocked roads; to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God.
I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light.
And twenty years after, on the other side of the globe, against the filth of dirty foxholes, the stench of ghostly trenches, the slime of dripping dugouts, those boiling suns of the relentless heat, those torrential rains of devastating storms, the loneliness and utter desolation of jungle trails, the bitterness of long separation of those they loved and cherished, the deadly pestilence of tropic disease, the horror of stricken areas of war.
Their resolute and determined defense, their swift and sure attack, their indomitable purpose, their complete and decisive victory – always victory, always through the bloody haze of their last reverberating shot, the vision of gaunt, ghastly men, reverently following your password of Duty, Honor, Country.
Somehow, in the last decades, Duty, Honor and Country has metastasized into This Bud’s For You.
Those who gave their lives for this nation deserve the respect of this nation.