The last Monday in May is celebrated as Memorial Day and I hate it. I used to love Memorial Day as a kid. It marked the end of school and the beginning of summer. It was a long weekend and it meant my parents were off. Sometimes we would go on a short vacation but the long weekend assured that something special was going to happen, even if it was just staying up late and hanging out with friends. Something happened and now I dread Memorial Day.
September 11, 2001, changed the world. I was already in the Army. We went from peacekeeping camouflage-wearing Soldiers to Combat Veterans. Thousands of Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen (sorry Coast Guard) deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Many made it home. Several thousand did not. Tens of thousands came back injured. Everyone came back changed.
For many who returned from a deployment (many deployed multiple times), Memorial Day is not a happy occasion. Memorial Day isn’t for us. It’s for those who didn’t make it back. It’s for those who died in uniform.
Interestingly, many Veterans of older wars will receive your thanks should you thank them for their service on Memorial Day. OEF/OIF will usually correct you. Some of them will be upset if you do. What is the difference in response between the two groups of Veterans?
I do not have any scientific data to back this us but I’ll share my thoughts with you. Veterans of older wars (Korea, Vietnam, and other skirmishes) will thank you or receive the thanks in place of the fallen. The victims of these wars received, especially Vietnam suffered for years without any thanks so any, even if misplaced is received.
Secondly, these fallen heroes died at the hands of the enemy. Casualties of OEF/OIF died at the hands of the enemy but the enemy was usually hidden away with an improvised explosive device (IED). OEF/OIF made enemy recognition difficult because uniforms were not common so the enemy looked like the shopkeeper and the shopkeeper looked like the enemy. When a Soldier was killed in action without a “fair fight” there is extra guilt.
Soldiers have survivor’s guilt. Survivor’s guilt comes in two ways. The first is why him and not me? The guilt comes in thinking that I should have died and not him. Thousands of scenarios go through the mind about changes that could have been made that would have made you trade places. The second way of survivor’s guilt comes by feeling that more could have been done. The best place for “something” better to have been done is usually if an IED would have been seen, traveled at a greater speed, or more quickly/accurately returned fire. The guilt comes from thinking, I could have done more.
Veterans of older wars have survivor’s guilt. Usually, the casualties from older wars died because of engaging the enemy. Many OEF/OIF casualties happened without seeing an enemy. OEF/OIF Veterans have compounded guilt because they can play the “what-if” game without ever seeing an enemy. It isn’t a situation of my guilt is worse than yours. It’s just different. Like I said, no scientific data. I’ve just talked to a lot of guys about it.
My issue with Memorial Day is quite different. My deployment was a cakewalk compared to many. My issue with Memorial Day is because of my time served as a Chaplain. I loved serving as an Army Chaplain until I got a call from Mortuary Affairs. Chaplains have the horrible job of notifying family members about the fallen Soldier. It was bad when I got the first, and then I got the second, then the third…
Memorial Day is a REALLY important day, it just isn’t about me. It isn’t about me because I came home. I can’t get all excited about it because I know what it cost. The numbers of casualties are not just numbers to me, they are names. They are Soldiers. They are sons. They are my brothers. They could have been me.
So if you are a Veteran suffering with survivor’s guilt or you just hate Memorial Day, I want to offer you two words of encouragement. First, guilt is normal. The way to combat guilt is by a greater emotion/feeling. The strongest feeling you can feel, the one that really hits you deep in your soul is the feeling of honor.
Your feelings of guilt are not surprising and you are not alone in feeling that way. But let’s be clear, you can’t change the past. You can only do something about the present. Your future isn’t guaranteed so live today in a way that honors those who paid the ultimate price. Find a unique way to honor those who didn’t come home.
The second word of encouragement for you, death is also in your future. Don’t let this handcuff you from living but be prepared to die. At 19 years of age, filling out my SGLI life insurance claim was a sobering moment. Death could come tomorrow or in twenty years, maybe many more but it will come.
How can you be ready to die? You must first admit that you’re not perfect. It’s not that you made a mistake here and there. Your primary problem is you have offended a holy God by willfully rejecting his standard of life. Your character does not align with what he requires. He requires perfection. You are selfish, angry, lustful, and proud by nature. So when you go to die, God will not let you in with all that stuff. Why would he?
If you want to be ready to die, it isn’t enough to just know that you’ve not met God’s standard. Honestly, it’s not good to die and bring that stuff to God. He knows that and so he made a way. The way he made wasn’t really fair but it was just. It was just because God requires a sacrifice to pay for our wrong doing. There wasn’t a sacrifice that was sufficient so he sent his Son. He lived the life we should have and then died the death we deserved. He died in our place and paid the price for our sins. If you believe this and surrender to Jesus, you can have new life so that when you die, you can really live.
Memorial Day reminds us of the cost of freedom. Sunday reminds us of the cost of eternal life. Let the reader live in a way to honor those who make these days special.