Memorial Day has been a challenging time for me in the past few years. Never really knowing what I am supposed to do but filled with grief and remorse that I was able to come home and so many others were not. I find myself repeating General George Patton’s quote, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” After years of trying to live up to the idea of his words, I realized that the quote is actually a silent acceptance that our human nature will always endure and we will mourn our losses. In the acceptance of those losses, we choose to either allow that loss to become a weakness to bring us down or turn it into strength to build ourselves and others upon.
Prior to my time in Afghanistan, Memorial Day always occupied a simple place of remembrance and duty for me. Growing up in Cub Scouts then later Boy Scouts my group would always go out to the cemetery and place flags adjacent to the headstones of Service Members. The veteran’s type of service is usually denoted on the headstone. We would spend hours in the blistering Oklahoma sun searching each headstone for a Bronze Veterans Administration plaque, sometimes an etched seal of the branch they served or their Rank and dates of service, an occasional Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star or Purple Heart. Having been born well after the Vietnam War and growing up in relative peacetime the sacrifice of those Service Members was a distant romanticized idea formed from movies, myths and legends. Even a few of my Scout Leaders were Vietnam Veterans whose stories of war and loss worked to inspire us as we saluted those cold ashen headstones with names that were common as they were numerous. I placed each flag saluted and said “Thank you for your service” then moved on in search for the next headstone. I had almost forgotten those days until my first year back while searching the cemetery for one of my Soldiers graves shortly after returning home. While searching, the memories of those long hot days searching for graves came flooding back.
Seven years after coming home, I still wrestle with knowing what to do on Memorial Day. The loss of friends and comrades during my time in the war has personalized Memorial Day in ways I never could have imagined before. Making it a little harder, the two weeks leading up to Memorial Day is an inescapable reminder of memories I mostly try to avoid thinking about. Television commercials, signs, radio advertisements are all wrapped in an American Flag or have “Taps” playing softly in the background. Even trying to avoid it, the constant barrage of media will take an emotional toll. Then as the day approaches, my circle of friends will offer trips to the lake or bar-b-ques to celebrate of the beginning of Summer. I politely decline or say I have other plans, not wanting to appear as the sad Veteran having to explain repeatedly why I am not having fun. Unfortunately, even after seven years the emotions and grief of those losses are still very strong. After a couple of years of trying lake parties, bar-b-ques, memorials and visiting the graves of fallen comrades I still haven’t found an event or place the resonated until last year.
This past year, I was randomly asked to assist with placing the Flags on those same graves I had as a Cub Scout. More out of nostalgia for my days and a desire to help the youth, I agreed. The day went along just as I had remembered from 30 years prior. The Sun was unrelenting, not even a breeze to cool our sweat. Just as I had, the Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts were tireless roving from gravestone to gravestone one row after another for hours. As the day progressed, I brought each of the young volunteers a bottle of water and another bundle of flags. Then I happened upon a 9 year old girl exhausted and bored. As we talked and walked, she asked questions about the war and what it was like. Answering the questions as delicately as possible and moving from grave to grave, I suddenly froze. Looking around, I realized I had stood in the same spot 6 months earlier. The terrain was icy cold then, wet with a recent rain in the middle of winter. I stood there holding the mother of one of my Soldiers who had ended his own life, in a suicide by cop fashion. Still too hard wired to survive to end his own life, but not able to continue living it either. After firing shots into the ground in a standoff the police officers were left without any other option. I vividly remembered his mother standing next to the grave that day. She was still in shock why her young twenty year old son that was in college working to make a better life for himself, who had never been in trouble, was now dead at the hands of the police. Unexpectedly, the emotions I had suppressed that day had returned to my face, and then began running down my cheeks. As the emotions built, I felt a small hand grab mine and pull me down.
As I knelt down I began to apologize, collect myself and try to explain. The 9 year old girl didn’t hear any of it, she merely wiped away my tears, placed her hand on my cheek and said, “Take a breath; it’s going to be okay.” Something her mother had done for her many times before. She then put her arms around my neck and said again, “It’s okay, you’re going to be fine.” In that moment the guilt of surviving the war stopped, the guilt of not being there to stop the suicide stopped, the guilt of not being good enough to bring everyone home alive stopped. All day I had seen those children as myself thirty years earlier, now was no different. It was as if my nine year old self was telling me I was going to be okay. Hand in hand she and I walked back to her mother and I explained what had happened and before I could apologize for my unexpected emotions she suddenly hugged me and in the same calm tone as her daughter said, “It’s going to be okay.”
I still don’t know where I am supposed to be on Memorial Day or what it means to me. What I do know is, as I quietly repeat the words of General Patton to prepare myself, I add the simple words of a nine year old girl, “It’s going to be okay.” I again signed up to volunteer to help place the flags on the graves this year as well. I will “foolishly” mourn the fallen, while I am thankful that they lived. Every day I take time to remind myself to be thankful that I lived as well, because “It’s going to be okay.”
1LT Joshua D Starks IN
Bravo Company Commander
45th IBCT, Oklahoma National Guard
Commander AFCOP Rahmen Kyhel