Suzette Martinez Standring: Memorial Day – keeping it real
Barbecue and grief have little in common, yet they are intertwined on Memorial Day weekend. In the Bible, Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” The official kickoff to summer also holds hands with our remembrance of those who died serving our country. Their sacrifices call for much more than a moment of silence.
At cemeteries here in Massachusetts, small flags flutter by military graves, some dating back to the Revolutionary War. On the tombstones of veteran graves, one can do the math between birth and death to imagine those men and women who died at the dawn of their adulthood while serving in faraway places. Before they were killed, what were their future hopes? Think of the children they left behind, never to watch their growth and milestones.
An empty place at summer cookouts, family vacations, and holiday gatherings is attached to someone funny, loving, and sorely missed. It’s not just the loss of the individual. There are thousands, and through the generations, millions of families whose domestic fabric has been torn apart by war and conflict. It is a most sorrowful group sacrifice.
Although Memorial Day honors those who gave their lives, I am mindful of the soldiers who have returned as shadows battling alcoholism and substance abuse, brought on by what they have seen or done. Often such military experiences are left unshared, because when taken out of the context of war, such things defy explanation, like Kevin Shannon of Weymouth, Mass., who served as a combat photographer in the Pacific during the Vietnam era. He never killed anyone, but it was his job to photograph death from war, stark and gruesome. Images haunted him for years after military service, his post-traumatic stress disorder undiagnosed for decades. He was lucky because art therapy, specifically writing fiction, saved his life, but his inner battle is far from over.
One side of post-traumatic stress disorder used to be known as “shellshock,” a word that conjures up thundering violence and paralyzing chaos. Today PTSD sounds contained and sterile, just like the term, “collateral damage,” which holds the death of innocents at a manageable, blurry distance. Involvement in such things is against one’s nature. No one wants to hurt, maim, or kill others. Yet soldiers follow orders. They are not in a position to question, only to obey those in charge with the hope and belief that liberty and justice is being served. They walk among us, hurting and forever changed.
People who gave their lives in service to our country are the reason for Memorial Day, even as we look forward to cookouts, beach towels strewn on lawns, and laughing children. It’s a time of togetherness, and in our collective awareness we honor our fallen military men and women who truly characterize the Land of the Brave.