It started like it always does. A well-meaning fellow American wished me a “happy Memorial Day .” Every year it stops me in my tracks. Hours after such a greeting, I come up with a good zinger in reply, but when it happens, I can think of nothing. This year, social media algorithms have gotten in the game. I check my Facebook feed on the Metro, and I am offered a deal on chinos in an American flag pattern. Thanks, those would be perfect for my long-weekend BBQ on my sure-to-be-“happy” Memorial Day weekend.
I don’t have the energy to be angry anymore. I was angry a few years into a decade-plus of war, deployment and loss. When those deaths were new, my feelings were sharper. I took offense at every pop-culture event that did not honor my friends. I was like those people on TV who are enraged by the “war on Christmas.”
A decade on, the casualties have not stopped. In 12 months, I lost three close friends and colleagues, two within 72 hours of each other. This Memorial Day will hurt.
But the moral indignation I felt in years past seems childish now. For all the debate on the meaning of the weekend, no feeling can compare with the emotions of those who will pause to remember loved ones: the fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and children they will never see and hold again. The Gold Star families. This is their holiday. As we say in our family when things go badly, you are not allowed to be more upset than the person the bad thing is happening to. We do not get to be more upset than the Gold Star families.
So this Memorial Day, like many of my fellow veterans, I will get the heck out of the city. I will surround myself with family and friends. We will enjoy the end of winter and the arrival of warm weather. I will self-medicate — a little — with an extra beer or two and try to live my life to the fullest as best as I can. We will do this for our friends who no longer have that opportunity.
Many of us will do everything possible to avoid fireworks and crowds; they are just not that much fun anymore.
Then, as the evening wears down, there will come that moment when the lump in my throat becomes so large that I cannot breathe anymore. At that moment, I will find a spot far away from everyone. I will tighten the black metal memorial bracelet on my wrist, look up at the stars and cry unashamedly.
We will wonder whether we could have done more, why it wasn’t us and what we could have done differently. Could we have trained better? Could we have gone right and not left? We will beat ourselves up until we have no more questions, no more scenarios to play out. We will wipe our eyes and listen to those friends above, in the stars, tell us, simply and clearly: “Charlie Mike.” Continue mission.
And then I will rejoin my family and friends and, in honor of my fallen battle buddies and their families, get on with it, Charlie Mike, and have a “happy” Memorial Day.
The writer is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. The views expressed are his own.