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Memorial Day Address

Kishwaukee Cemetery 2012

When my son Matt was in the early stages of dating his future wife Beth, he asked her, “What has been the best moment of your life?”  She was unable to come up with an answer.  

In her silence he said, “I think I know.” He then pointed to a picture on Beth’s desk.  It was taken the day her parents come to pick she and her sister up from her grandparent’s home.

In the picture Beth, then 8 and in the 3rd Grade was hugging her Mom.  Her dad is holding her 6 year old sister.  Beth and her sister had been staying with her grandparents for several weeks.  This particular day had come as a surprise.  They had not seen their dad in a year. 

Beth’s dad was in the Air Force and had been on assignment in South Korea for that year. These two girls had not seen him since he left.  For a 6 and 8 year old, a year is an eternity.  The only contact she had with her Dad during that year was in snail mail letters which simply said,  “I love you.  I miss you.  I can’t wait to see you again.  Keep helping Mommy and working hard at school.  I’m proud of you.”

When Beth shared this memory with me, it reminded me of the sacrifices made by family members of our service men and women.  I grew up in a military neighborhood.  Most of my friends were children of Navy Pilots during the Viet Nam War.  

My friend Cindy was 9 when word came that her father had died in a training exercise, when his plane did not stop while landing on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga.  

My friend Danny was 10 when he learned his Dad was a POW.  Mike was 9 when he learned his Dad was MIA after his plane when down behind enemy lines.  Tommy was 11 when they came to his house with news of his father’s death.  Other friends welcomed home Dad’s with permanent debilitating injuries, physical and emotional.  As one of my friends told me in high school, “Dad lives in my house, but we lost him in Viet Nam.  When he came home, he was never the same.”

While it is right for us to remember today those who died while serving in our country’s armed forces, I can never forget the other deaths and losses experienced by the families of our service men and women.

In my neighborhood, filled with Navy Pilots, everyone had a father, but rarely was Dad ever home.  When the USS Saratoga left the Mayport Naval Base for a tour of duty, it was frequently gone 9 to 12 months.  For this eternity children did not have a Dad to help mold and shape them, while Mom’s did their best as lonely single parents.  

I have many friends who served in our armed forces.  They and their families frequently tell me the same stories about their times of deployment and the hardships endured by spouse and children when the soldier is deployed in these words:

The ‘easier’ part of deployment is for the service member going out.  It is an inevitable part of a military career.  Everyone who serves in the military knows that ‘you go where you are told and do what you were sent to do’.

When the orders are cut, you immediately begins to plan and prepare, there is a shift in your thinking.  You focus on the mission, which becomes top priority in his life, even over his wife and kids.

While the soldier knows they are serving a cause bigger than themselves, caring for family comes second.  It has to be that way.

This is more than single-mindedness.  It is also a preparation and self-protection tactic.  You know that the best way of insuring that you get home safe is to focus on the mission. 

You have to trust that your spouse and kids know what you do is important.  But the moment you leave, you know all will not be well.  On one deployment the washer, the dryer and television all broke the first week I was gone.  Then both kids got sick.

You are unable to provide support, guidance, love, and companionship with difficulties arise at come.  

Deployment is often another word for divorce.  The marriage dies because neither husband nor wife can prvide support or understand the hardship endured while separated.

That kind of stuff is harder than one might think.  Added to these fears is the uncertainty of how long the deployed person will be gone – not being absolutely sure where they are – not knowing how much their life is at risk. 

While the soldier looks forward to any communication from home he has to keep his mind clear to successfully complete the mission.  If he loses focus he risks not only his life, but those of the men and women and families in his unit.    

Wives tell me:  

After 29 years it never got easier.  You worry.  From the minute I heard he was going somewhere to the minute he returned I worried.   I had everything at home to worry about, the house, the kids, the car, the dog, the job.  Then you had him to worry about and you wait at home for news to come that he was safely back from another mission.  

I tried to keep my communications with him positive, not telling him if something at home was wrong knowing that he had to keep the mind on the mission.  At the same time, I tried not to think of what he was going through, knowing there was nothing I could to to help him.  

I had to trust that he was in God’s hands.  Knowing that if something happened, it was God’s will and there would be nothing I could do to change or fix it.  I prayed for communications that told me he was “safe.”  I would thank God when he came home.  

As a single parent during deployment, I had to keep a positive attitude for the kids.  They did not know how dangerous some of his missions were.  While I knew he might not come home safe, I tried to protect my girls from these fears as much as I could.  

The whole family, soldier, spouse, children, parents, and siblings live in fear that they may never see their husband, Dad, child, or sibling ever again. Then, if they return home “safe”, you do not know what emotional or physical shape he will be in.  

Post traumatic stress syndrome is one of the most common casualties for soldiers and their families when they have served in the military

The Veterans Administration reported this week that 50% of all returning Veterans go on disability.  Their faithful and sacrificial service brings death into their lives long before they physically die.

I remember a college roommate telling about his service in Viet Nam: 

“I wish I had died in combat. The nightmares of what I did, of what I had to do to defend and protect myself, my buddies, and the mission of our nation haunt me daily.  My only escape is alcohol and drugs.  Who wants to marry a man with the emotional injuries I have.  Thankfully my body is in one piece, it’s alive, but the rest of me, my heart and soul is dead.  It died in Viet Nam.”  

I never knew what happened with my roommate.  The year I lived with him he was always in a rage, angry with someone, picking a fight, drinking and drugging himself to sleep.  He dropped out of college.  The only thing I know about him now is that Viet Nam killed him. 

When we meet a soldier with a physical disability or injury, out hearts pour out for him.  We focus on the physical injuries, but fail to remember that his biggest injury may be emotional, mental, and spiritual 

Today when we name those who have died, who have made the ultimate sacrifice of dying while serving our country, I ask you to remember those who suffered other deaths, either within themselves as the soldier or within the lives of their family – wives, children, parents, and siblings.

Death comes in many varied forms when a man or woman serves us, our nation, as a member of the armed forces.  Death comes physically, but it also comes in the form of long absences from home; in the constant fears of anxious worry; it comes when you are a POW; when you realize that you are MIA behind enemy lines.  Death comes when limbs are lost and hearts and minds are scarred in the midst of battle.  

This Memorial Day, let us humbly give thanks remembering and honoring all who have died and all who live in the midst of the other deaths while serving our great nation.

 
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