Memorial Day is our day to honor and mourn our soldiers — ordinary men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, laying down their lives, mostly without choice or option other than to walk through distant and silent valleys of certain death, in places far from their humble roots and from where their hearts once beat so strong and sure.
For many of us who have experienced the revulsion of war, and seen and felt its remnants in the shattered lives and mutilated bodies left on bloodied battlefields, on bombed-out roads and buildings, mangled and twisted jeeps and tanks, and on military bases sabotaged by men, women and children, infected by hate and rage that to them, justifies the savagery and barbarity of self-sacrifice and random slaughter — Memorial Day opens very personal and painful wounds that touch our very core.
Wars are all the same — no matter the place, the time, the enemy, or the name that history gives each. Each is continuation of our ravenousness lust for power over one another. Every war creates a generation of beaten and defeated legions of maimed and damaged minds and stained, blemished and stunted dreams that never come to be.
There have been several legitimate wars in which the world took up arms to save humanity.
Unlike too many recent wars, back then the whole world knew what they were fighting for and against.
But again, even those major wars centered on power and greed, and were, unfortunately, unavoidable.
As a veteran of Vietnam, on Memorial Day I feel sad at having outlived so many friends, and so many more young and naïve strangers I never met or knew, who became heroes without even being asked or ever having had a chance to taste or feel the posthumous glory or admiration of heroism, gallantry, bravery or valor thrust upon them. And for those of us who walked away, there is only the unending, remorseful guilt and self-reproach that grows and intensifies as the years pass by. For families who lost someone in war, Memorial Day brings back tears and sorrow of hearing that knock on their door, or the receipt of a Western Union telegram.
“We are sorry to inform you,” began the words that would forever change their lives. And at that very moment, in that house or farm or office, they too became casualties of war. Then and there, they too became heroes to some.
Heroes for having given their son, daughter, husband, wife, brother or sister — for the red, white and blue, our national honor, in a war.
Too many times during the Vietnam War I saw that same grand old flag drape boxes that were returned home from war.
And inside each flag-draped box, the lifeless, dreamless body of what could have been, a dream no longer reaching for the stars.
Families back then never considered themselves heroes.
They were simply ordinary fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters — feeling numb, empty and devastated.
And, as soldiers, specifically in Vietnam, we knew that when one of us was knocked down, like a kewpie doll at a carnival, during battle, or killed in a skirmish or attack, there would always be that award for our effort, given posthumously to family back home. A pretty gilding medal with gold plating, enamel and bronze, attached to a moire silk neck ribbon to wear around their neck or display in a glass-framed box with a black-trimmed picture of a hero.
Memorial Day is supposed to be a day to remember the loss of a life, but not necessarily the worth of a man or of a boy. In my war, as I am sure in any war, regardless of time or place, men and women became faceless and nameless. As soldiers, we became numbers and“pins” to be replaced as needed, where needed. Today, war has become too clean and too antiseptic. Too easy for people sitting in gilded chairs in conference rooms, debating not the names or lives of all the young men killed and gone, but rather, debating the design and colors for the next “kewpie doll” medal to be given to a grieving mother or father, or debating the design of a monument or statute for the last man standing. Lost over the debate on money, equipment, ammunitions and political realities, is the concept of the pain and blood that is shed every moment of every day, of every year that our men and women are in war.
Memorial Day to me is remembering, and thinking about how oblivious so many men and women of power and influence seem to be back during the Vietnam era, to the reality of what young men, women and boys were experiencing and living each day in Vietnam. Back home politicians and family continued to live their dreams. In Vietnam we were living our worst nightmares. Vietnam, like most wars, was about numbers — the casualties, the money, the alliances between countries and leaders.
War is callous. It is cold-blooded sanctioned murder, disguised in patriotic colors and patriotism.
We have made Memorial Day a holiday. Car dealerships advertise major sales events, department stores hype their specials for this day, and people generally barbecue and enjoy a day of family fun. For me, Memorial Day is spent thinking of Vietnam and of those young men my age — my friends, who had so much life and energy and dreams in them, and knowing that in the blink of any eye those friends, with whom I shared jokes, whom I touched during a game of football or basketball, whom I walked down the halls at school with, and whom I saw with their mom and dad at home down the block every day, are now just a medal with a ribbon in a forgotten glass-enclosed box.
My memories of my war, Vietnam, are obscene. They haunt me and bring tears to my eyes.
Because they were me, and I was them.
Memorial Day — it became personal.
Al Garcia lives in Palm Valley.