Memorial Day Memories

Over the Memorial Day weekend my thoughts drifted to two veterans I know very well: my father and my brother. My father died about twenty years ago at age 70; my brother is still alive. My father served in the Navy during WWII; my brother served in the Vietnam War.

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When my children were small, every Memorial Day we drove to my hometown on Long Island’s North Shore, to see the Memorial Day parade. My father marched every year with his comrades from the local American Legion post, as a flag bearer and Sargent-At-Arms, in his crisp blue uniform with ramrod straight posture. My mother and her group, the American Legion Auxiliary, marched closely behind them in their crisp white uniforms, wearing white gloves. They both looked so proud to be there, part of a history that was still in everyone’s memory.

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I felt proud of my parents, even though during the Vietnam War years I became an antiwar protester. I was disturbed at how the draft ended up taking mostly working-class, non-college-bound recruits like my 18-year-old brother. I was in college at the time and I felt it was the least I could do to protest against our involvement. I wasn’t angry at the soldiers; I was angry at what I perceived to be our misguided government. My father was part of a war with a greater cause; my brother served in a war that tore the country apart.

Several of my peers served in the Vietnam War. Everyone I knew who returned was damaged in some way or another. My brother had several near-death experiences and was caught up in some of the nastiest battles of the Vietnam War. He left as a young man and returned prematurely aged at 19. He has dealt with depression and physical issues ever since. One of my high-school classmates, a handsome, well educated guy, served as a second-lieutenant making him responsible for the lives of the men in his unit. He came back with a huge amount of guilt about those he left behind, and “lost his way” for decades. He is now, finally, enjoying what’s left of his life.

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It was the sight of the back of a veteran’s head  wearing a military cap in the restaurant where we had brunch today that moved me to write about these memories. I don’t enjoy thinking about them, but neither do I want to forget them. I have been reading about Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, Japan while the wars continue to rage in the Middle East. I try to keep up with the pace of events but I find the current wars so complex I often can’t even understand who’s on what side and why.

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Nonetheless, I think we owe it to those who serve in our military to remember them, whether or not the war was justified. I fear a collective loss of memory as the generations pass and our demographics change so rapidly that the majority of the population will soon have no connection to these memories. There is very little nostalgia for the “glory days” of America left in our country as so many of our citizens struggle to survive a very different challenge: how to make a living in an economy that is beyond their control and understanding. I find myself on both sides of the generation gap: sympathetic to those who served in the military and empathetic with those who can’t find jobs and are angry about it.

I hope we can find a way to reconcile the two points of view because I think memory is such an important part of understanding who we were and what we wish to become as a nation.

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14 thoughts on “Memorial Day Memories”

  1. Barbara,
    You put these difficult issues forth in such reasoned and heartfelt ways. Your father’s and brother’s experiences in war, similar yet so very different. These coupled with the current generation’s challenge. I fear for our country’s loss of memory. I fear that loss will lead us down disastrous trails especially in these confusing economic times. Thank you for this post.

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  2. A very thought provoking post. I, also, protested the war in Vietnam but also felt the greatest respect and admiration for my father-in-law who fought in the Pacific in WW2 and would never speak about the war. It is an important point, remembrance, because the country that forgets is doomed to repeat its mistakes.

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  3. I think this is the third or fourth week in a row that we have written about exactly the same thing, Barbara; we must be soul sisters. I am very happy for your family that your brother returned home from Vietnam, even with all of the scars. Neither of my brothers served, but a cousin did. His name is on The Wall. My father was in the Army of the Reconstruction, but two of my uncles were in the European theater during WWII…
    We have generations in their 20s, 30s, and perhaps even 40s, who just don’t keep up with what is happening in the world. Unless it is about their tiny little environment, events hold no interest (even contractual issues-which may directly affect their livelihoods). It is sad. It is dangerous. It is shocking. It makes for a very unsettling future…

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  4. May we never forget what these brave men and women did/are doing so that we can enjoy the freedom we have. I remember the 60’s, signing up for the draft and watching the Vietnam war unfold. Not a [particularly bright spot in our nation’s history.

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  5. This is a beautiful Slice. Thank you for sharing hard, personal memories. I agree with you about finding it hard to understand the complexities of wars being fought today.

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    1. It’s no wonder so many people feel “disengaged” from the Middle East wars. The only person I know personally who fully understands the complexities of these wars is my son, a Georgetown graduate who took a lot of courses that helped him understand the history of the area.

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  6. What a beautiful tribute to those who have served and died for our country. This should be published in newspapers it’s so well written.

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  7. Your final paragraph holds such truths. I fear for the direction our country is headed. Your family has given a lot to our country, thank you.

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  8. It is so complex among the various generations. I lost my father in WWII, had a step-father who served all over the world, & survived the Battle of The Bulge. The Vietnam War era was so fraught with anger and I remember well the terrible conflicts even within my own family. I understand that it’s so complex today, and there are many problems to solve in helping today’s veterans return to their lives. I hope that I am helping in my own family by telling stories, just as you did today, so that we can remember. It’s a heartfelt post, making us all question and ensure that we are carrying on in good ways.

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  9. I am very moved at your heartfelt response to my post today. It means a lot to me that the TWT readers understood and appreciated my “take” on the importance of remembering our history.

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