Read This Before You Thank a Veteran for Their Service on Memorial Day
Memorial Day comes around and I get the same five words, without fail. “Thank you for your service.” Labor Day rolls around and I hear the words again to close out the summer. Then, finally, on Veterans Day, I’m able to properly thank people for reaching out to me because Veterans Day is actually for me.
I grew up with an Army dad, then watched my older brother graduate college and fly Army helicopters. Uncle Sam paid for my college tuition, and then it was my turn to raise a hand and jump in a uniform. I served for eight years in the Army, beginning with the 25th Infantry Division in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Hawaii is a tough assignment, but somebody has got to answer the call to duty!
I later deployed to Afghanistan with my platoon of 60 soldiers, and that is how I learned the reality of war and fallen comrades.
Memorial Day is for the memories. As some people gear up for their beach weekends and day parties at the start of summer, Arlington Cemetery will be packed and there will be nothing happy about the tears there. Those are the people truly in need of Memorial Day wishes, prayers and good vibes — not me.
There will be a soldier in his home dealing with survivor’s guilt because his squad mates were killed in combat but he remains alive for reasons he will never understand. There will be a Marine at a medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, fighting for a new normal after losing a leg while her comrades lost their lives. There will be a little boy staring at a folded triangle American flag a little longer than usual on Memorial Day because that day is for him, his loss and his memories.
Memorial Day shines a light on the price of war in our country that is paid in human lives and real faces. While many Americans can go on with life each day and follow the latest Twitter trends, others limp along emotionally just trying to hold it all together. This struggle is so profound that the Gold Star Mothers were formed in 1918 by Grace Darling Seibold under the premise that self-contained grief is self-destructive.
Memorial Day is for bringing that grief to the surface on a national scale. This day is the nation’s chance to pause and remember the brave lives that were sacrificed to defend the Constitution.
Sacrificing a life and sacrificing years of time are two different things. I willingly gave a year of my life serving in Afghanistan and vowed that if God brought me home safely, I would never go back to that place. Fortunately, that bargain worked out well for me, but thousands of soldiers willingly gave their lives on foreign soil while I boarded a plane for home.
When someone tells a living veteran or service member, “Thank you for your service,” it can also act as a trigger. Greetings on Memorial Day cannot simply be thrown out to any passing veteran or service member as blanket statements. Care really needs to be taken to consider the huge aspect of what is being expressed on that day: lives were lost, families were shattered, teams were wounded through acts of war. It is a big deal. That veteran is undoubtedly living with their own wounds of war or their time in service. I know that I am. I still see the faces of my Army friends who died due to PTSD, whether the calendar says May 29 or any other day.
My pain of losing those friends is not the same as the trauma and loss of surviving a team attack. The fact that I am alive and well enough to remember them is not lost on me; that is the largest proof that Memorial Day is not for me. To some it is splitting hairs, but to veterans it is the very essence of the difference between ourselves and our comrades in arms that are no longer here.
We get to live on, we get to have another day, another Thanksgiving, another chance at greatness, but our buddies who gave all will not. The tragedy is staggering and worthy of proper acknowledgement to the fallen soldier — not any random veteran walking on the street.
Operation Enduring Freedom will live on in my heart and mind forever. I will never forget what a July day felt like in Kabul because I am a veteran of the greatest Army on the planet. Yet, right now a mother is remembering her child, a child is remembering a parent, a soldier is remembering a buddy, a spouse is remembering the greatest love ever and Memorial Day is for them.
Originally published May 2016. Updated May 2017.