Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 8, 2012
When someone close dies just as they reach adulthood, feelings of unfairness and wasted opportunities are added to the normal grief felt at the loss of a loved one. If that death is the result of military service, other emotions are added. A touch of guilt may develop from feeling his or her sacrifice was much greater than our own. And a sense of thankfulness for what that person did for the common good may arise as well.
This mixture of feelings has led most nations to set aside a day to recognize those who have died serving their country. That day for Americans - Memorial Day - is the last Monday in May. This year, husband Artís and my Memorial Day experiences were a bit unusual.
Our plane touched down around 9:40 a.m. at Londonís Heathrow International Airport. It was after 2 p.m. when we pulled into the small parking lot at Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial just west of Cambridge, England. Except for the Air Force sergeant in his dress blues unlocking his car, little suggested the day was a special one.
A long wall to the north marked the memorialís southern boundary. Art walked west and I went east, entering through different openings. It was quiet inside, the noise from the few cars on the nearby highway being blocked by the wall. A few hundred feet or so to the north, hundreds of white grave markers placed with military precision curved along the ridges of the gently rolling hill. Between the wall and the graves, a paved expanse stretched westward to a raised area with a large American flag and eastward to a narrow, yet tall stone chapel. The chapel contained large maps and ceiling decorations documenting events from World War II.
In contrast to the pensive demeanor of the few people scattered here and there, several ducks made a fuss in the narrow reflecting pool running the length of the paved area. Yet we knew a short time earlier the cemetery had been a bustling place. One clue was the dozens of flower wreaths leaning against the north face of the wall that contains the names of some 5,000 missing. Another was a partially-filled box of white cotton gloves. Those missing from the box would have been worn earlier by military personnel. But mainly we knew because in 2006 we had attended the 11 a.m. Memorial Day ceremony.
The day set aside to honor our military dead was once called Decoration Day. Most trace its beginning to May 5, 1868, when Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that each year on May 30, flowers were to be placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. By 1890, the day was recognized as a holiday by all the Northern states. But Southern states refused to do so, honoring their dead on separate days. That continued until after World War I, when the holiday was changed from honoring not only those who died fighting in the Civil War, but all Americans who died fighting for their country.
Our other experience wasnít actually on Monday, but five days earlier. A movie titled ďMemorial DayĒ premiered at Kansas State Universityís McCain Auditorium through the efforts of K-Stateís Office of Military Affairs and Perspective Films. Nearly 1,000 - including World War II and other veterans, military dignitaries and the filmís producer, director and one of its actors - attended.
The film centers on the relationship of Bud Vogel, a World War II veteran, and his 13-year-old grandson Kyle. When Kyle discovers his grandfatherís footlocker, Bud is reluctant to talk about his war experiences, but Kyle persists. Eventually, Bud tells his grandson to select three objects from the chest and he will tell the story behind each one.
In one story, Bud and his men encounter a German force and kill all its members but one. Bud, as the lieutenant, is faced with what to do because the man is mortally wounded, yet the men in his unit cannot fulfill their mission if they take him along.
In another, just as the war is coming to an end, Budís first sergeant and close friend is killed. Bud wants to retaliate, but when the German soldier is caught, Bud sees he is a scared boy of about 13, probably drafted when Germany had lost almost all its service-age men.
Bud's grandson later serves as a sergeant in Iraq and he observed how some of his experiences paralleled those of his grandfather.
The film demonstrates how friendships, losses and moral dilemmas unite veterans across wars. But it also highlights that those who die are not a warís only casualties. The horrors of war can leave physically-sound veterans mentally-scarred. The movie suggests we can also honor their service by recognizing what they have lived through, and one way to do that is by listening to their stories.
Art worked with a Vietnam War veteran who told about how his dad tried to awaken him one morning by touching his shoulder. Before he knew what happened, Jim had his father on the floor and was choking him, a response that arose from a war where surprise close-range encounters with the enemy were common.
Artís cousin Claudia has often commented that their Uncle Rollie returned a different man after serving in World War II. In a letter home, he wrote that he had seen things no man should ever see.
So on future Memorial Days - and on other days as well- we need to recognize not just those who made the ultimate sacrifice or have to live with physical scars, but those who return with injuries that are not so easy to see.