I have a somewhat negative reaction to Memorial Day. On one level, I totally understand that people made sacrifices so that I can enjoy freedom. But I also know that behind every person who served, there is a story. And growing up with those stories has left me feeling that it is hard to separate the heroism from the tragedies.
My uncle Billy served in World War II, and died in a POW camp in Japan just a few weeks before the Japanese surrendered. But during his teenage years, he molested my mother. She was always blamed for this, and he was always portrayed as the sacrificial, military hero. My grandparents adored Billy, but never gave my mother the support she needed to get beyond her abuse. So you can imagine that any holiday celebrating our war heroes was miserable at my home.
My dad served in the Air Force for 13 years. After being expelled from Villanova his freshman year, his father, a well connected New York Irish politician, gave him an ultimatum: Go to the Naval Academy or get out. After graduating from Annapolis, he married my mom the next day, and went straight into the Air Force — a third of Annapolis and West Point graduates doing the same since the Air Force Academy did not exist. He became a navigator having failed the eye exam to become a pilot. Ironic, considering I remember him lost on more than one occasion and I never recall him with a map.
My mom was enamored with the concept of being married to an officer, which I am sure had all of it’s own twisted psychology given her relationship to Billy. But after 13 years of service, 11 different assignments, and four children, my dad got out. And my mom never let any of us children — or my father — forget how in seven years he would have had his “retirement.”
With all of this volatile family background, my mom sent me to a boarding military high school after my parents’ divorce, and later my dad insisted I go into the army via an ROTC scholarship. There is definitely a lesson here about the sins of the fathers being passed on generation to generation. My inherent mistrust of people’s intentions and blind rhetoric never suited me well in my own military career. Once, as a Second Lieutenant, I debated a Lieutenant Colonel about my belief that Russian soldiers were just like us — blinded by their own government’s propaganda. A wise Sergeant Major told me the next day that I was right, but that I could never, ever under any circumstances debate a superior officer in public like that, and more importantly my own platoon would lose faith in me if they themselves began to doubt their role through sound logic and persuasion.
We all have stories. Some are amazing and full of great sacrifice. Other’s touch on the surface of greatness but below have simmering events that have caused great suffering. So, Memorial Day, for me, is to remember the people behind those stories and pictures and parades. Yes, I do still thank them for the freedom I enjoy. But I also remember that their sin and brokenness can be masked by holidays, and often leaves generations-long suffering.
My uncle and my mother were never reconciled; my father and his father were never reconciled; my mother and her parents were never reconciled; my father and mother — even after divorce — still never reconciled. In the end, I know that whatever the holiday or whatever the pain, there is only one way for reconciliation to be achieved. It is through faith in a perfect and loving God who abhors war and tragedy.
On this Memorial Day, may there be reconciliation, and may the events of patriotism not leave those with great suffering alone.