Memorial Day always leaves me with conflicted emotions. It's not because I find it hard to intellectually understand that some have made, and will yet make, the ultimate sacrifice. And after 22 years as a military brat and another 20 years in the military myself, I totally get the realities of military service---life effects that may seem unacceptable to those who have not experienced them.
I even acknowledge there will never be 100 percent clarity of purpose when leaders must make decisions about what thousands of others are to do for the greater good. Missions are messy. And as "instruments of national policy", ours is but to follow and implement the best way we can, hoping our leaders are doing the same.
In terms of character, the oath of enlistment and oath of commissioning are essentially the same promise each military member makes to the nation they serve. Even after leaving the military, whether completing one stint or a career, wearing one's newly granted civilian status is neither easy nor complete---nor should it be. Yet among those who have served, you can see it in their bone-weary faces. There are few who would be happier and more relieved to return home, emotionally and physically spent, knowing they had done their best and glad that their burden can be set aside, if only for a while.
Sure there will always be grumbling about orders given. But, if called on again, likely almost all would take up the mantle once more and march on. Those unable to continue will stand in spirit behind all those who can and do. That is the unstated code not to be trifled with.
So, what is it that gives me pause on Memorial Day? In a visceral sense, it is hard to get my head around. It is just a deep, unfathomable feeling. But in truth, the conflicted emotions are fed by the discord that bubbles and boils as close as the TV remote or the never ending reports and interpretations of reports according to one's own world view. It is the constant din of disagreement, the ceaseless competition for a slice of the pie, swirling even as the distant combat continues. It is the masses apparently feeling no other option but to gnaw on bones tossed into the crowd by those who would incite riot.
And in the face of all that, how can an individual casualty among the thousands of dead and maimed warriors be understood and accepted? What of the mothers and fathers whose sons and daughters will no longer sit at table on Thanksgiving or find love or celebrate the lives of their children, born and unborn? For me, I think of an uncle I never knew: Alfred Washington Kirk, Jr., Private First Class, US Army. He was Jute or Junior to all who knew him.
Uncle Junior was a young man when he signed up, not much more than a boy, really. Born on August 10, 1923, he had yet to reach his 21st birthday when he died on a beach in the South Pacific. Junior had enlisted after Pearl Harbor, following two of his brothers (my dad and another uncle) who had joined up a year or two before him. Trading farm life for the company of thousands of others bound for an uncertain future, in less than three years, he fought what was likely his first and last battle on May 4, 1944. I can only imagine his final days and hours and minutes when, through serendipity, he became part of the nation's sacrifice.
When such loss is personal, the acceptance gets harder, even decades later. And yet, we go on in the knowledge that the totality of those losses are the price of freedom for all those left behind. Shouldn't the sacrifice of the few who we hold so close to our hearts call us to a common purpose that transcends our differences? Don't we owe the fallen at least that much, that they did not die in vain? Thanks hardly seems enough and yet it is all we have. Junior, I am humbled by your sacrifice. You and all your brothers and sisters in arms, who made the ultimate sacrifice then and since, were taken from us way too soon.