I always thought sailor hats were pretty cool — at least, since I saw them on TV when newscasters would show photos of Navy personnel serving in the Persian Gulf War. The men — men, I remembered thinking at the time, although obviously a good portion of them were just kids — looked serious and tough and seemed to ooze testosterone all over the place. I was an 8-year-old kid who didn’t understand the meaning of Plato’s oft-quoted saying, “Only the dead know the end of war.” So one day when my mom, probably for the umpteenth time that week, asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told her with bravado that I wanted to be in the Navy. That probably took her off-guard and, somewhere along the line, the allure of military service wore off for me — most likely a month later, when I wanted to become a veterinarian.
You see, I’m not really the person to be writing a Memorial Day blog post. I like words, not weapons; books, not bombs; art, not artillery. I’ve gotten fat since the time when most sign up for military service, chalking in at a robust 150 pounds; I was probably 130 pounds back then. The only uniforms I’ve ever really served in were during the five years I spent working as a busboy, waiter and bartender at Chi-chi’s and the basketball and soccer jerseys I donned while I was in high school. I didn’t opt for the military — when some of my college friends did — on Sept. 12, 2001 during my freshman year at Western Michigan, nor did I consider going into the service after I graduated college in 2005.
But some of my friends and family members have been in combat across the wide breadth of America’s foreign conflicts — from Iraq and Afghanistan all the way back to World War II — and probably the only way for us civilians to fully grasp the magnitude and psychology of war is to talk to them, ask if you can help as they readjust if they are just back from a war zone, or donate your time or money to causes that help those who have served.
So I guess I’ll share a couple stories about just a few of the veterans I know, and ask that you share yours as we inch towards Memorial Day:
— My maternal grandfather, who passed away a decade ago, would only share the following anecdote about his time in the Army: “Koalas are mean little bastards,” sometimes interchanging the expletive with another, more vulgar one. He was referring to his R&R time in Australia. He never expanded on that experience, nor did I ask him to. He also was missing a good portion of his hair and, whenever I asked how he lost it, he said during the war. At that age — I was about 6 years old, I think — I just figured a Japanese soldier shot it off, not that the stress of being in a combat zone made him look like Dr. Phil before Dr. Phil became the celebrity he is today.
— One of my best friends is a Marine (technically he’s out of the service now, but once a Marine, always a Marine). He did multiple tours in Iraq and, by and large, escaped physically unscathed. But I have often wondered how that was possible; his service was largely before the Sunni Awakening, when the country was going through the difficult birthing pains of becoming a functioning democracy. Every so often we would get an e-mail from him, but one day he wrote one that had the subject line: “I almost died today.” His convoy was decimated by an IED. I don’t remember if any of his buddies were hurt or killed in that incident, but he was largely uninjured, save for perhaps some cuts or bruises. He sent us a couple pictures of the vehicle, and it looked like you would expect: mangled, unsalvageable.
— I also teach English composition at Oakland Community College when I’m not working at the Spinal Column. My first semester teaching there, I had two very unique students: Joe, a pilot who had conducted bombing raids over Iraq; and Salam, an Iraqi immigrant who left the country in 2005. Upon first learning these two students’ life stories, I was immediately concerned there would be tension or friction between the two. Thankfully, however, I was horribly wrong. The pair were virtually inseparable during class and I always overheard the pilot giving advice to the immigrant. They were the two most divergent duo I could have expected. And I suppose that’s probably what I’d like to remember this Memorial Day — how our military personnel, for as tough and well-trained as they are, continually manage to confound my expectations and impress me.
How about anyone who reads this? What are some reflections you have on any of the veterans you know, and how will you be spending the upcoming holiday to express your gratitude for their service?
At this point, I’ll sign off and end it with this: Have fun on Memorial Day and enjoy your day off, if you have it, but take some time to remember why we have such a holiday in the first place. So hats off to our military, past and present and future, and thanks for your sacrifice.