Memorial Day: Human and Heroic

Today is a break from the usual as we honor military service members who paid the ultimate price. Memorial Day symbolizes our dedication and willingness to honor those who were killed in service to their nation, fighting for a higher ideal.

Today, though, we see that death is not always the final cost to be paid. For many veterans, the battles fought on foreign soil are not the end, they’re the beginning. Some of us find that what happens follows us home, and we haven’t just paid with our life, but our very soul, as we battle the demons who lurk within our own minds.

More than ten years ago, I gave a speech in Parshall, ND to honor those who lost their lives serving our nation, including my own friends. I posted it on a fiction hosting site I used at the time and surprisingly, it was well received. A decade ago, it made it to the “All Time Short Classics” list and I was honored by the positive response. It gave me hope that I was a good writer and could/should continue. I’m glad I did. Because now, I face my own demons; the little gremlins of pain that find you somewhere far from home and follow you back. Fortunately, my writing (and some therapy) give me an outlet and I’ve been able to beat the little bastards into submission while writing my third novel.

Today, I ask you to raise a toast. To honor those who fought and died, to honored the 22 per day who fought and ultimately succumbed to the demons, and for those of us still fighting to keep our souls and sanity.

To the fallen, human and heroic.

Below is the full speech. It means a lot to me as it gave me the courage to keep writing. It’s early work and a little rough, but I’m posting it with only two changes: removing my name/rank/job as it was from my time on active duty and the name’s of individuals involved the ceremony.

Good morning, I’m [redacted], but I go by [redacted].  I would like to start by saying how honored I am to be able to speak to you today. When the Public Affairs shop said they were looking for volunteers to speak they were so overwhelmed that they had to turn people away so I feel lucky I got picked.

The PA shop sent out a 5 page speech for us to use today but I found it overly formal and impersonal. They wanted me to emphasize the Air Force’s role in current war-fighting which I don’t find relevant to Memorial Day. I don’t think their speech adequately expressed how I feel about this holiday. When I talked to [redacted] I asked him what he’d like me to speak about he offered a few suggestions which I think I can better work with than informal PA stuff.

So who am I? Like you I am a warrior fighting for peace. I’m [redacted] and I work as an [redacted]. I’ve been stationed in 5 states, deployed once to [redacted], dropped munitions on 4 countries, and have been a proud member of the Air Force for 5 years. I’m the first person in my family to have joined the military since WWII. I’ve wanted to serve my country since middle school and have worked hard to get where I am today. I’ve never regretted any of the work I’ve done to get here because I believe serving my nation is one of the highest callings an American can answer.

I think I represent the next generation of war fighter. Children who grew up with video games and the internet are now employing some of the most advanced weaponry in the world. We’ve come a long way from Continental soldiers facing off against the British Army but one thing remains true: American men and women love their country so much that they are willing to lay down their life to its defense. In the words of President James Garfield: “for love of country, they accepted death.”

I think of this holiday as both sad and joyful. Sad in that we tearfully remember the people we know who’ve died in service but joyful for the freedoms we can continue to enjoy: Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of assembly. I find this year’s Memorial Day particularly painful. On July 20th, 2008 the B-52 community lost its first aircraft in almost 15 years. This was a crash that killed everyone aboard including a classmate of mine from Barksdale as well as a friend who I’d been training and working with since the beginning of my Air Force career. The 6 men on board were honorable Americans: family men, fighting men, whose job was not just to fight our nation’s wars but to deter and dissuade foreign leaders from starting more.

RAIDR 21 – Lost near Guam, 21 July, 2008

Memorial Day is not just a day off from work. It’s not just a day for picnics, ballgames, family vacations, and relaxation. Memorial Day is a time for us to gratefully remember these heroes and honor the sacrifice they’ve made for us. Today should be a day to remember deployments with our friends, think back fondly to family barbeques shared together, or jokes told over a beer. Today I will remember my friends killed last year. I remember Bobby not only for being a hero to this nation but for being human. I will remember swing dancing with him in a dive bar in Texas and I will remember his love of America. I will remember Bull for giving me relationship advice after a fight with my boyfriend that helped us stay together, and last August, get married. I will also remember how his face would light up when he told me about past deployments and how much he loved his job. They, like every fallen soldier, are not just heroes but brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and friends.

When I think about the men and women we’re honoring today I feel humbled.  The accomplishments they’ve achieved are the cement and mortar of American history. The images that come to mind when thinking of Memorial Day are of the iconic photograph at Iwo Jima, Army helicopters swarming a Viet Cong camp near Cambodia, and Gunnery Sgt Michael Burghardt of the Iraq War defiantly flipping off the IED maker who had tried to end his life. Every one of these images show people who were everyday Americans but who chose to be more. Men who fought because they believed in America and know that war, while not good, is sometimes necessary. They came from different towns, different backgrounds, different generations but were united by duty and sacrifice.

Gunnery Sgt Michael Burghardt of the Iraq War defiantly flipping off the IED maker who had tried to end his life

So today, we honor my friends and yours as we do the more than 650,000 other soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who’ve given their lives. With solemn ceremony and honest remembrance as who they were: honored heroes and friends whom we call brothers. Today we celebrate openly the emotions we carry daily in our hearts: humility in the face of their sacrifice, pride, and the fortitude to carry on despite friends lost.

What does Memorial Day mean to you? Who do you honor today? Let me know in an email, comment below, or hit me up on Twitter.

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