Memorial Day isn’t just about remembering the ones who died

When I was a little girl, we’d go to the cemetery in springtime to decorate the graves. My grandmother would put on a sweater and we’d load the car with geraniums and petunias. The air smelled of cut grass; tombstones studded the emerald lawn beneath us.

My uncle had served in World War II and the Korean War, and his grave would get a stars-and-stripes theme, although my mother used to remark that, in life, he was usually too busy carousing to be much of a flag-waver. Grandma would reply that war does things to people. In the only photo we had of him, he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his eyes sad, his arms wrapped around two Filipinas. In any case, maybe because I got to place the little flags, or maybe just because the flowers were bright like my uncle’s shirt in the picture, May has always reminded me less of holiday weekends than of wartime memories.

I think of May, for example, when I think of my handsome cousin who joined the Marine Corps when I was in grade school. One minute he was packing for boot camp; the next, he was heading for Vietnam with a duffel bag and a rifle. He’d been a deer hunter and an athlete, with a smile like Matt Damon’s, and my sisters and I had spied on him, hoping to witness him kissing some girlfriend. When he’d stride into a room in his jeans and work boots, it seemed only grace could befall him. 

But the war did to him what war does to people. When he came home—his hair shorn, his smile gone, his eyes obscured by dark glasses—his soul seemed to have been snatched from his body. Soon thereafter, he left town, and though we were grateful he didn’t leave us with a grave to tend, come Memorial Day, we thought of him, too.

Years later, I sat at an Orange County dinner party, listening to a Navy SEAL recall a comrade he’d lost in Iraq. It was wrenching. The SEAL was about the age of our oldest daughter, so small and compact in his jeans and dress shirt that it was hard to imagine him in an elite military force. Being thrust into the limelight clearly made him nervous. But his host, a wealthy man, had pressed him to tell the story: The comrade who’d died was about to be awarded a Silver Star and Medal of Honor, in part because he had saved the SEAL’s life during a firefight. A hail of gunfire had pierced the SEAL’s leg, and his teammate, a local kid, courageously dragged him to safety. Months later, the teammate died on a rooftop in Ramadi.

 Now one beautiful young man was alive and another wasn’t. As the SEAL haltingly bore witness, the guests fell silent. Flag-waving is big here, but it had been a long time since the toll of war showed up at any of their dinner tables. The place names, the acronyms—nobody got them. His hand touched his scarred leg as his voice trailed off, and everyone at the table applauded. He finished the meal without adding what war had made him do after his friend’s death. Under his dress shirt, his entire torso was tattooed with a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel next to the face of the fellow SEAL who saved his life.   

Several years have passed since I met that young man and heard his story. Still, come Decoration Day, as we used to call it, I think of him. Some Americans resist holidays of forced remembrance. No adult needs to be told to feel grateful. But generation after generation, remembrances matter. It’s not that we forget those who serve and sacrifice for us. It’s that we forget what war does to them.  

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.

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