GET BREAKING NEWS IN YOUR BROWSER. CLICK HERE TO TURN ON NOTIFICATIONS.

X

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

When I was a little boy, I worried about my dad being killed in the Korean War, even though I had no idea what that meant. All I understood was that dead people have to lie in a box and this makes families very sad.

When my dad returned from Korea, I was 5 years old. He had been gone almost half of my life. I barely remembered him, but I was still thrilled that he wasn’t in one of those boxes. When he retired from the Army we switched roles. He worried about his sons, one in the Marines and one in the Air Force, being killed in Vietnam, and as for my mother, all I can say is that her heart had to be made of iron and steel. So Memorial Day in my family is personal, passionate and profound, as you’ll soon hear.

I served in the Marine Corps for three years and saw combat in Vietnam. Memorial Day for me comes with a list of names and a catalogue of nightmares. My thoughts have little to do with well-groomed country cemeteries, flags and orderly rows of headstones. Those images of tranquility are opposite to the realities of war and provide only a temporary sense of resolution and closure. I don’t think that any war is or ever will be over until the last warrior dies and greed or the human lust for power are ancient relics, consigned to a long-past evolutionary stage of man.

Today I’ll describe for you images of the places that the mind of this warrior wanders on Memorial Day. Not to shock you, perhaps to provoke you, but definitely to inform you. To give you a perspective when you hear someone say about Memorial Day, “what’s the big deal, they do it every year and it’s boring.” I don’t want you to have, or keep, or be troubled by, the memories of warriors. I just want you to know that we have them, they’re not boring and neither is the freedom we all enjoy.

I often wonder why Memorial Day is as well-known as the beginning of the summer season, as it’s known as a day for a few moments of appreciative and somber reflection. There must be some reason beyond apathy, that there’s such a disconnect between warriors and many of the people who send them to war when it comes time to remember those who paid the price for freedom. I just wish I knew what it was.

I think George Orwell touched on it when he said, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Maybe some people find it easy or convenient to forget those “rough men” and in today’s military “rough women.” But by all means “sleep peaceably in your beds,” but I ask you to, just once a year; remember those rough men and women, who sleep eternally, on our behalf. I think every American can at least, no matter where you are over the weekend, stop at a local cemetery and offer your respects, in your own way.

Before I begin the mental odyssey I mentioned I want to say that perhaps one or two of you young people will become warriors and see battle. With all sincerity and respect I say, “God bless you,” because you’ll definitely lose, forever, who you are today and you may lose your life. You’ll be forever different from all those around you.

Although others will hardly notice it, you’ll feel it with every beat of your heart. You may walk away from the battlefield but you’ll never leave the battle, or your fallen friends, behind. Memorial Day, for you, will be every day, and you won’t understand why your countrymen, in 1973, streamlined the occasion into a convenient three-day shopping or going away weekend, you won’t understand why so many Americans do nothing to honor those who gave up far more than a few minutes of an indulgent three-day weekend.

Now I’ll share with you some images from the places my mind wanders during the Pepperell town ceremony on Memorial Day. I want to show you some of the emotions, thoughts and sensations that I cycle through. I want you to know that what is abstract for you is concrete for those who serve. The images aren’t orderly or story-like. I suppose they reflect the nature of war or my reaction to it; the images are chaotic, random, illogical, profane, arbitrary, relentless, compelling, horrific. Such is the price of freedom. I’ll speak of death and battle; the sight of it, the sound of it, the feel of its indifferent touch on my skin and the taste of blood, dirt and gunpowder in my mouth.

It starts with the scene in front of me on Memorial Day, across the street from Town Hall. Prayers are offered and speeches made as I stand with the other members of the VFW rifle squad, waiting for our cue. There’s a small crowd, perhaps 500 people out of the 12,000 people in my town. Maybe the indifference is similar in your town.

Then Corporal Saboliauskas, 3rd Division, Fleet Marine Force, Western Pacific, thinks to himself: I love these 500 Americans, but I’m deeply disappointed by the ones who are too self-absorbed to be here, or somewhere like here, but I’ve been debriefed, re-sensitized and re-civilized since the war.

Then Corporal Saboliauskas, 3rd Division, Fleet Marine Force, Western Pacific, thinks to himself: I love these 500 Americans, but I’m deeply disappointed by the ones who are too self-absorbed to be here, or somewhere like here, but I’ve been debriefed, re-sensitized and re-civilized since the war.

I’m led to believe those are good things so I tell myself I won’t confront the people who don’t care. I won’t tell them that their sense of entitlement is selfish, petty and, in the end, destructive to the very freedom they take so much for granted. I can only hope that in some way they’ll have to explain themselves in the next world, however they may perceive it to be

Then I hear machine-gun fire from a long ago battle. It never really stops. One day, maybe, it’ll finally kill me. I see myself on the battlefield killing, and then cursing the day I was born, cursing God, cursing myself, cursing man and all his works, swearing a dark oath to abandon humanity and all it professes to be. I see myself dead, long ago, killed by war then, forgotten by peace now. I hear the agonized shouts and moans of the wounded and dying, it profanes my ears far beyond the power of mere words like “God damn it!”

I snap back to the present and imagine my wife telling me that I swear too much. The machine gun is still firing, I see grenades killing it, grenade after grenade blasts it into smaller and smaller pieces until it is dust, and the earth and sky are painted red with the remains of my enemies. In the present, I see a small child holding an American flag, doing her best to stand still while Taps is played. In my mind, my eyes flood with water and a wave washes down my face, choking me, drowning me, the child looks up and smiles at her mother, saving me. Explosions shake me so violently that I feel my bones knocked hard against the inside of my skin, I see human beings turned into bags of liquid. I zip up body bags full of friends, I see shoppers at the mall with bags full of Memorial Day bargains. I feel hot metal rip into my flesh, my hand must be gone, I see hot metal rip into Floyd, he is gone. I hear my daughter, faintly, in the distance calling “Dad DAD! Where should we meet you after the ceremony?” she’s standing next to me. My mouth answers her with words that will bring us together in a few minutes, my hand touches her, it’s still there, but the hand that pulled the trigger and threw the grenades, feels so very different touching a child, maybe it’s not my hand at all I see the heads and chests of my friends laid open by the violence of war, I feel the hearts of their parents breaking, I see jagged shards of broken hearts falling into an abyss. I see people driving home after a lovely three-day weekend, complaining about traffic? Complaining about the weather? Complaining about how slow the service at the restaurant was?

I hear a friend on the battlefield jokingly complain that “he was too young to die” he was not. Even though no one can see it, my hands are shaking violently with rage and fear. Even though no one can hear it, my voice is cracking, my lips trembling. And even though no one can feel it, my heart and mind are broken, shattered, staggered and stunned. I mourn those we have lost, as brothers and sisters, simply because they were. I wonder to myself, would anybody but family risk their life for someone else’s safety? Would anybody but family risk their life for someone else’s freedom? Would anybody but family risk their life so you could live yours in peace and freedom?

I look out on the small crowd at the ceremony and I’m crushed to see so few members of our American family take time out of their long and prosperous lives to pay their respects. Mercifully, wonderfully, groups of children distract me; they’re running, twirling, playing calling to each other, laughing and giggling. For me, it’s the sound of peace and freedom, a chorus of liberty in tune with the heartbeat of God. Their joy and purity consecrates the ceremony with a benediction that’s beyond the powers of clergy, civic leaders or even, grumpy old Marines. I’m uplifted by the compassion, sensitivity and commitment to honor of their parents, and the community groups many belong to, for bringing them to the service, for teaching them their heritage. To me, they’re family, their sense of social and moral obligation extends beyond their own front door and the confines of self-interest.

Now I want to talk about our freedom, our pursuit of happiness, and the peace and security that we all expect. I’ve just told you where I think it comes from, and I’ll add to that, “but you need to think about America, its past, present and future, for yourself, otherwise I might as well be talking to a flock of parrots.” America got where it is because we first questioned the arbitrary rule of a king and we’ve never stopped questioning.

But I’m troubled by the all-too-frequent contemporary narrative that asks, in one way or another, “America, what’s in it for me?” We need to change that back to “America, what it’s given to me.” Our men and women in uniform now and those who’ve served over the past two centuries deserve no less. I want to emphasize the courage of our military but still have you see that courage is not a military word. Every American needs to exercise this quality in their lives; it can illuminate a bright future for our country, or lacking it, the dismal failure of us all.

In closing I want to make a few comments about our country. Over the course of my life I’ve often seen our diversity and differences exploited for petty gain. Ethnic, political, regional, gender, religious, economic and lifestyle differences have been used to define who we are at the expense of neglecting, ignoring or sometimes even destroying what we all have in common. We’re all Americans and citizens of the most extraordinary political and social achievement in the history of all mankind. I’m going to repeat that sentence because if you remember only one thing I’ve said today, let it be that — (repeat sentence).

In the 200,000 years of our history as a species and in 7,000 years of recorded history, America’s brief life as a nation singularly outshines all other political concepts in the universe of human experience. We are a brilliant new star, one that’s fueled by dreams of universal human dignity, hope and hard work. We are a nation of just laws, a nation of diverse peoples but a nation bonded by the common aspirations and collective achievements of all those diverse peoples. Diversity in the world at large can often be an obstacle or a weakness; let us in America continue to have the courage to demonstrate to the world that diversity is a well-spring, and a reservoir of our strength. Let us choose to see our diversity as simply one more thing that we all have in common.

What’s right about our country is just about everything. What’s wrong can be fixed, if you’re willing to go beyond your own self-interest and truly participate in this democracy. Most of you were probably born American citizens and may think that this simple fact is all our country needs from you in order to flourish. History and current geopolitics says otherwise. Most importantly, common sense says otherwise. We need all of you, now, and for the rest of your lives, to participate in our republic, this brave experiment, this brilliant and noble idea, this United States of America.

Some one and a half million Americans have been killed in America’s wars since the Revolution; they’re what this ceremony and this weekend is all about. These Americans have risked and lost their lives creating and then defending our country over those many years. If they’re forgotten, whoever we become, as a nation, or as individual citizens, will be a lie. We can have no claim to honor, no claim to courage, and no claim to political or social legitimacy of any sort, if we neglect, either by action or omission, the memory of those whose shoulders we stand upon to behold our vision of America’s future. Every nuance of our culture was made possible by the sacrifices of our warriors; they have given us the canvas upon which every American may compose a masterwork of human achievement, one that’s a celebration and affirmation of human freedom and the spirit of the “better angels of our nature.”

I want to thank Abraham Lincoln for those last five words and I want to thank and congratulate all those students who did not cover their ears and squirm when I said things that were out of your range of experience or expectations. As I said, courage is not a military word; you kids have it, just keep using it. America needs it and America needs you.