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.
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.
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.
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.
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.