Memorial Day weekend is coming up. Summer is officially here. Fire up the barbecue and put away that winter wardrobe. I live in an area of the country where the population of veterans and active duty military is pretty high. There is no shortage of patriotic feelings around this holiday.
The holiday originated as Decoration Day after the American Civil War in 1868. By the 20th century, Memorial Day was created as a way to honor all Americans who died while in military service.
This Veteran’s Perspective
As an Army veteran it is not unusual for me to be thanked for my service. But there is an interesting thing that happens from time to time around Memorial Day. I will be thanked for my service or greeted with a smiley “Happy Memorial Day!” because of my veteran status.
I ask you this: Please don’t wish me a happy Memorial Day because I am a veteran.
It’s not just me. It happens to other veterans as well. At one Memorial Day gathering, I can remember greeting another veteran with a very sarcastic, “Happy Memorial Day.” Fully knowing that both of us had lost friends in the service.
It is almost always appropriate to thank a veteran for their service, but on this particular day just know that this is not what Memorial Day is about.
What Happens on the Inside
I typically cringe on the inside when someone thanks me on Memorial Day. It quickly forces me to think about what all veterans really know. We are the lucky ones. For someone like me, I’m really lucky. I have all my fingers, toes, and I am generally unscathed by my service.
What veterans know is that it could have been them that didn’t make it home. It is a guilt that many veterans carry with them when they leave the service – a guilt that feels light some days and others it feels heavy. Even with all the sacrifices that come with military service, those sacrifices pale in comparison to someone paying the ultimate price by giving their lives.
All Were Heroes
While stationed in Germany, I was given the opportunity to tour The Battle of the Bulge battlefields. This famous World War II battle ultimately marked the end of the German Army. Of course, it was not without great loss of life and sacrifice from the Allied Forces.
After spending a long day looking at various battlefield landmarks and still visible equipment and foxholes in the Belgium forests of Foy, the members of my Battalion gathered for dinner. As we shared our thoughts on the day, one particular comment stood out to me.
A First Sergeant (senior enlisted) remarked that it wasn’t the hero who died charging up a hill or manning a machine gun nest that he thinks about. It is the soldier who died quietly and alone after being wounded. A soldier who had no extreme act of heroics like in the movies, but rather a soldier simply walking through the forest on patrol doing his job – a complete sacrifice in the act of service.
The Wide Impact of that Sacrifice
For every member in uniform, think of how many people each one represents. Of course, there are the wives, husbands, and children. But there are also the other family, girlfriends, boyfriends, best friends, high school friends, teachers, classmates, etc. The impact of one person’s sacrifice can impact so many people.
I thought by writing this post I might provide those without a specific personal experience some insight into a very specific person and story. So that in the future, when you stand up for the national anthem or give a toast on Memorial Day, you can think back to a specific name and face – and a way to offer a contrast to the general idea about someone, usually a younger person, dying in the service of their country.
In late 2006 I was checking my email and saw one from a former classmate and fellow Army cadet from the University of Connecticut (UConn). The subject line simply said, “Jason Hamill.” To my complete disbelief, Jason had been killed while out on patrol in Iraq. It was simply hard to imagine.
Jason and I met while in college. We were both heavily involved in the Army ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program and competed together as part of the Ranger Challenge Team. We had spent countless hours training together as ROTC Cadets. Jason was a mentor and good friend. Tough as nails and funny as hell. Goofy at times.
“Come On Dude!”
Jason had kind of a distinctive New England accent. To this day, when I’m training for triathlon and things get tough, I say to myself in Jason’s voice, “Dude! Suck it up.”
I often think of him laughing as the other members of the Ranger Challenge team gave him a hard time for not being able to connect himself to a rope bridge.
The rope bridge was one of the graded activities during the two-day Ranger Challenge. A ten-person team had to quickly assemble a rope bridge, which was basically a rope tied between two fixed points. Each person would then connect themselves with a snap-link (D-Ring for you army types) and then quickly pull themselves across the rope bridge, hanging from the rope by your waist. On this one particular practice run, Jason was having a hard time connecting himself to the rope.
His teammates giving him a hard time,
“Jason, hurry up man!”
“Dude, I can’t do it,” he yelled while hanging almost upside-down trying to connect himself to the rope.
We all enjoyed giving him a hard time. That still makes me smile to think about.
Of course, there wasn’t much Jason couldn’t do. When it came to Army skills, Jason was a complete stud.
Life on Active Duty
When we graduated, we both ended up serving in Germany together to include a deployment to Kosovo. Jason, a combat engineer, was attached to the tank company I was a platoon leader for while training for our deployment. It was an amazing coincidence. Seeing Jason walk into my barracks room in that miserable training area of Hoenzfeld, Germany was like seeing family.
Jason was a highly talented and capable field leader. During one particular training scenario his combat engineers were in charge of removing a large obstacle from the path of a platoon of tanks. Everyone was sitting inside their vehicles listening to Jason call out the commands over the radio. The more junior soldiers in my tank joked about how that Lieutenant, my friend, knew what he was doing. He was an impressive leader.
Last Chance Encounter
When my tour in Germany was over and I was being transferred back to Fort Knox, KY, I ran into Jason again. We had lunch together, which included telling stories about Kosovo, and talking about families back home and the future. I was sure I was getting out of the Army after my commitment was up, but he was planning to stay in.
Our paths had been linked together so closely since college but would now part ways. That was the last time I saw Jason.
Writing a Letter
Getting the news of his death was devastating. I was racked with guilt, sadness, and anger. But nothing could be done. The one thing I could do that made sense was to write a letter to Jason’s family. Somehow maybe this would help me process what had just happened. Maybe letting his family know that someone they didn’t even know and who only knew their son for a few years was profoundly impacted by his death would help them in some small way – and me.
So I wrote a letter.
While attending Jason’s funeral in Connecticut I sat in the pew waiting for the ceremony to begin. My mother was sitting next to me, and I recall that she was the one who noticed that someone was making an announcement and that they were calling my name.
I got up and approached the man who was making the announcement. In his hand he held a copy of the letter that I wrote. I was being asked to read it aloud during the ceremony. I was beyond touched by the gesture and it is something I will never forget. In a room filled with people (to include the Attorney General of the State of Connecticut) I read my letter aloud.
Years Go By
As the years have passed I have gotten to enjoy so many things. Buying a home, having a child, being married, and celebrating my 40th birthday. Never far from my mind are those who are not as lucky as me. Men and women in uniform, whether they are killed in training or at war, pay such a high price. Like Jason, they are unable to enjoy these life milestones. Families are left incomplete. Things don’t get better and it is never fixed.
So when I suggest to not wish me a happy Memorial Day because I am a veteran it’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. But I would rather you think of Jason and all the other Jasons out there. Because that’s what this veteran is thinking about on Memorial Day.
Below is a video tribute Jason’s wife and family made.