Below is a story written by my brother in law, John Nerges. It contains his personal perspective on Memorial Day, the culmination of serving 30 years in the US Army, and being the son of a WWII combat veteran. For many of us, it is the chance to see our country through a different set of eyes this day.
The officer in the center of the photo above is my brother-in-law John Nerges. The above photo was taken in the Eisenhower Suite at Walter Reed. He was head of the nurses in the intensive care ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. On that day, 11 February 2005, John was being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Although he was Airborne and Air Assault qualified, and had been deployed with both the 82nd and 101st Divisions, the focal point of John’s career was the care for severely wounded soldiers. My sister Alison, herself a critical care nurse, left, and my father, a career naval officer, right, pinned on John’s insignia. It was a very moving ceremony where John’s promotion was read by a recovering, severely wounded Army helicopter pilot. The pilot’s mother was on hand to thank John and his staff personally for saving her daughter’s life. With characteristic humility, John said the credit was entirely for his staff. It was a most memorable day in my family’s history in many years. John had said that his only regret was that his own father, a veteran of World War II fighting in Burma, did not live to share the day with him.
Most of the things I write are meant to be funny, musical cats and dogs and a swipe at pop culture. Allow me to share my thoughts on Memorial Day and get this off my chest. Memorial day is when we honor our War Dead.
When I Goggled Memorial Day to codify my thoughts, the word “Sales” came up 3#. If I go into Lowes today, I get a pretty big discount being a veteran. But it’s a conflict. I didn’t die in war so why should I get 15% of all purchases. The young man below Arlington isn’t going to need “Super Savings at Wal-Mart” today.
The Google search also gave me this:
“Memorial Day, an American holiday observed on the last Monday of May, honors men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Unofficially, at least, it marks the beginning of summer.”
This tradition makes me proud of the United States. To my way of thinking, nations that do this this are better than those that do not. When a country honors the fallen, speaks volumes about the people.
Here is my struggle; Today’s military enjoys unrivaled support but with a hidden price. My friend is a Viet Nam vet. During an extremely intimate conversation about war, he told me he resents it when somebody tells him: “Thanks for your service”. To him, it feels like a catch phrase. Now if you met him, you would never know his feelings, he keeps his anger in check and is extremely gracious and affable. But I understand him. He is mad because people didn’t thank him for his service in 1970, they spit on him and much worse. It’s a burden he hides from most, he allowed me to see as a brother in arms. In my dark times, I suspect that slogan means more to the sender than me. I know those who breath these words don’t have any ill will but the reality is I don’t always trust catch phrase on Memorial Day.
My own hidden burden is this: as an Army Nurse, I look at every death on my watch as a loss, a failure on my part not to take better care of soldiers. It’s not a pathological sentiment but a product of my experience. I have seen an awful lot of death in 30 years of service. I know acceptance is inevitable or I would go insane. Don’t worry; I am ok today. But a soldier’s death is proof of our powerlessness. When you talk to a vet, there is usually more going on behind blue eyes than we let on, it’s nobody’s fault but it requires sensitivity.
So when well meaning friends and strangers say: “Thank you for your service”, sometimes, like Memorial day, it reminds me that I failed every KIA, whether on the battlefield, in Walter Reed’s ICU or alone from suicide.
I believe all soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guards, contractors and military families deserve the nations gratitude but if you could hold off until 11/11, or at least Tuesday, that would be great, just not on the last Monday in May. Let’s reserve those accolades for those who died from war or preparation for war, too soon, too futile, too courageous. Too many.
It would be really bad form to point this out when people offer support. I know there is good will in their hearts. This is my conflict and why I am writing now. I don’t want to discourage anybody from “thanking a vet” on Memorial Day. I want to encourage people to be more mindful.
What I would like to hear instead of
“Thank you for your service” is
“I am grateful to those who died for our country”.
Now its time to turn to happier sentiments. We are grateful for the support. I love summer and Memorial Day is opening day for summer fun. I love me some “Ten dollars off at Ace Hardware” as much as the next guy. I am no suggesting we walk around morose for a 4-day weekend. What I am suggesting to change our thinking, just a little bit. If you have a moment, close your eyes and feel that swirl behind your eyes, the kind that shows up with a tear and thank our nation’s War Dead. In the midst of our political season, lets keep these thoughts sacred and honorable. I think we are slightly out of balance. So when you are finished with reflection, go have a blast and see you at IHOP.
Thanks for reading and have a great summer.