A combat veteran recently said to me “I hope to God nobody says ‘Happy Memorial Day’ to me. I’ll cuss ’em out!” Indeed this is not a happy day for many. Starting in late April/early May many combat veterans look on the approach of memorial Day with mixed feelings. Yes, they want to honor their fallen brothers and sisters. But it is a time that also stirs up haunting memories and intensifies deep grief.
As some veterans reflect on losses in war, some struggle with guilt. One young man wept as he told me the story of a battle buddy who took his place on a mission only to be killed by an IED. “That should have been me sitting in that seat”, he said. Another person told me a story of his father who had been at Pearl Harbor. As he and others ran to their planes to fight back, two soldiers on both sides were shot down while my friend’s father survived. As many veterans say “Why did I come back and they didn’t? Is there a reason that happened?” I don’t know about you but I don’t have any answer to that question.
Viet Nam veterans will wonder why some losses still bother them over 50 years later. Trauma has no sense of time. So this weekend some veterans will relive the death of a friend. Others will relive unimaginable terror that will disturb their sleep. Some, as they listen to “Taps”, will simply relive too many military funerals.
Other families and friends will suffer more silently for their loved ones did not die in combat but died as a result of the mental and emotional scars of combat. These are the veterans who ended their lives. Some were never able to find their place after service. Others were haunted by memories. Still others were broken by guilt. Their families and friends will be thinking of them this weekend, struggling to understand and to forgive.
What I have learned about combat veterans is that they will talk but only if they perceive that a person is genuinely willing to listen. Many of these veteran do not share their stories with loved ones, choosing to protect them from the horrors the veteran has faced and the death heshe has witnessed. Others will be silent simply because they believe no one wants to listen.
So don’t wish “Happy Memorial Day” to any veterans or families of veterans you know. If you’re willing, ask instead “How are you doing this weekend?”. But only ask if you are willing to listen.
In honor of my fallen brothers and sisters, to include those whose lives ended by suicide, I offer this beautiful tribute. Its title “Mansions of the Lord” refers to one of my favorite Bible passages: “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions. I go before you to prepare a place for you.” Perhaps this weekend some veteran and family members can find comfort knowing that a fallen beloved warrior is waiting for them.