Memorial Day 2021: Some memories and reflections

Given the President’s announced withdrawal from Afghanistan, Memorial Day this year has special poignancy.  The holiday does commemorate all servicemembers who have fallen, but in light of the announcement, one cannot help but to think in a special way about the more than 2,349 U.S. troops who gave their lives in that conflict, and the enormous loss their family and friends must endure.

Memorial Day 

Just as a refresher, Memorial Day remembers “the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military,” so saying “Happy Memorial Day” is a serious faux pas.  (And this day of recognition differs from Veterans Day  – Nov 11 – which honors all American veterans, both living and dead.)

It isn’t especially well known, but the statute establishing Memorial Day (36 U.S. Code § 116) has a distinctly peaceful and prayerful orientation:

  1. a) Designation.

—The last Monday in May is Memorial Day.

(b) Proclamation.—The President is requested to issue each year a proclamation—

(1) calling on the people of the United States to observe Memorial Day by praying, according to their individual religious faith, for permanent peace;

(2) designating a period of time on Memorial Day during which the people may unite in prayer for a permanent peace;

(3) calling on the people of the United States to unite in prayer at that time; and

(4) calling on the media to join in observing Memorial Day and the period of prayer.

I hope prayer is part of your plan for Memorial Day.  A National Moment of Remembrance takes place at 3 pm local time.

Pease don’t forget there are many ways we can honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.  In fact, there are a number of Memorial Day events taking place this year that were not possible in 2020 because of the pandemic.  Military Times helpfully compiled a list of several of this year’s activities and it’s available here.  My wife Joy’s blog (here and here) also has some timeless suggestions and thoughts for you and your family,

Remembering those who died

LT Lin

I invite you to look at some past posts honoring Memorial Day as they have additional info (see here).  I would especially invite your attention to the remembrance of the heartrending loss of Lt Rich Lin, U.S. Navy, who died in an accident shortly after his graduation from Duke Law (“A Life Too Short Leaves a Lesson and Legacy).

This year…

Please take just three minutes of your time to view the Memorial Day video found here.  Watching it may be too painful for those who have lost someone, but no American should fail to watch it simply because they think they are too busy or too important to spend a few minutes to honor the fallen with their attention.

There are many to think about.  A new (May 17) Congressional Research Service report notes that just since 2006, “a total of 18,571 active-duty personnel have died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces” (from all causes).

Anyway, I believe the video will give you a sense of the depth of the loss friends and families feel when a servicemember they love becomes a casualty.

This year I would also ask you to do something unusual.  Please watch the short video (here) made from scenes from the movie Taking Chance.  The film, starring Kevin Bacon, is based on a true story about the journey of the remains of a 20-year old Marine, Chance Phelps, who was killed in action in Iraq, and Marine lieutenant colonel Mike Strobl who volunteered to accompany him home.

Again, the video of the movie scenes is here, and the news report about the Lt. Col Strobl, the Marine officer who Kevin Bacon played in the movie, is here.  Both videos are extremely powerful.

I never had the honor of escorting remains of a fallen soldier home as the officer in Taking Chance did, but I did see part of the process.  While still on active duty I made an official visit to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations (AFMAO) at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.  This is where all troops who died overseas are received and prepared for their final trip home.

I’ll never forget that experience.  I can’t forget it.

Preparing a fallen soldier’s uniform on a mannequin at AFMAO

Many of the fallen come almost straight from the battlefield, and extraordinary care is taken to clean and prepare the bodies to be clothed in their service’s formal, dress uniforms.  Their personal effects are also carefully cleaned for return to their next-of-kin.  (Some of this is depicted in Taking Chance.)

The process is amazingly exact in getting all the deceased’s military awards and decorations perfectly placed – even if the next-of-kin intend to have the body cremated.  There are instances where the remains are such that it is only possible to place a neatly folded uniform in the casket with them.

1Lt Laura Walker, KIA, Afghanistan, 18 Aug 2005.

When I visited, the war was at its height, so the mortuary was a tragically busy place with so many young men being readied for their journey to their final resting place.  (I don’t think there were any women there at the time, but you should watch this video: “A Tribute to our Fallen Female Heroes.”)

To me, the youthfulness of the fallen was particularly striking.  The facts seem to bear this out: figures assembled by the Congressional Research Service indicate that about 45% of the U.S. servicemembers who died in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan were 24 years old or younger (and over 75% were 30 or younger).  98% were men.  The percentages are pretty much the same for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Years prior, I wrote about my minor involvement in Operation Provide Relief/Restore Hope, the mid-1990s operation aimed at relieving starvation and chaos in Somalia.  (Those efforts, which began as humanitarian operations, ended a little more than a year later – a few months after the horrific firefight memorialized in the book and movie Blackhawk Down.)  Here’s a brief part of my reflection in that article:More recently, I was reading Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s magnificent book, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, and came across a passage that recorded “the last American servicemen to die from enemy fire in the Vietnam War.”  They were Marine Lance Corporal Darwin Judge of Marshalltown, Iowa, and Corporal Charles McMahon, Jr., of Woburn, Massachusetts.

As we look at the pictures of these then very young men, it’s hard to believe they died 46 years ago.  Let’s take a moment to think of them.

We must still remember

It is sad to realize that a 2020 poll found “[m]ost Americans have no idea why we celebrate Memorial Day.,”  This, regrettably, is not a new phenomenon.  In a 2015 op-ed in the Washington Post, Marine veteran Jennie Haskamp wrote:

“I’ve come to realize people think Memorial Day is the official start of summer. It’s grilled meat, super-duper discounts, a day (or two) off work, beer, potato salad and porches draped in bunting.

But it shouldn’t be. It’s more than that.”

She could not be more right.  So, yes, enjoy the day and the freedoms, but take a few moments to remember the fallen who have made the ultimate sacrifice for you.  We can never forget that “freedom isn’t free” — something that’s evidenced by American military cemeteries across this country and overseas.

This year let’s especially remember those troops who did what their country asked them to do by serving in Afghanistan, but who can only be with us in spirit this Memorial Day…and all the ones to come.

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