What was once a day to remember old men of long-past wars has become a time to honor kids who were killed just yesterday. Iraq war veteran Don Gomez on mourning’s new generation. Plus, read Marine Joe Chenelly’s essay on the changing face of Arlington Cemetery.
Memorial Day is a holiday for all Americans, whether they’ve fought in a war or not. And for those who have fought in past wars, Memorial Day carries special meaning. But for those whose war is still playing out in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan—our Memorial Day has nothing to do with history. It is intense, online, and in living color.
Like many Americans, I grew up without really understanding the meaning behind Memorial Day. I associated the holiday with barbecues, a day off from school, and sleepy Sunday afternoon movies about submarines and Generals. Even when I was fighting in Iraq, or jumping out of airplanes with the 82nd Airborne Division, it still seemed like an old holiday for old men. As a war veteran, I eventually came to understand the meaning, but I still figured it wouldn’t become my holiday until I was retired and gray.
Ten years of war has changed that. For the quiet few who have shouldered these wars, Memorial Day is no longer an abstract holiday honoring a faceless mass of heroes from a history textbook. It’s a list of names of people you know, reluctantly accumulated and growing ever longer. It’s a reminder of the awkward long-distance phone call to tell a friend that his old squad leader and mentor was killed in an IED blast in Afghanistan. It’s the swirl of emotions felt when informed that a friend was just killed in Iraq, leaving behind a young wife and children. It is the unavoidable sinking feeling, deep in the stomach, of "Why me? Why am I okay?"
It would be nice to see #MemorialDay trending on Twitter and have it mean something more than an excuse for a marathon Call of Duty session.
When once I may have thought of Memorial Day veterans as old men in wheelchairs, I now think of the young blonde soldier at Walter Reed, painfully fixing her prosthetic leg to her knee for her morning physical training session. I think of my friends who struggle daily with their wartime experience and the challenges they face in transitioning from combat to civilian life. I'm reminded of those who died by their own hands long after they returned from the Middle East, victims of a war that would not leave them.
While the country will mark this holiday with barbecues, beer, and mattress sales, veterans of past wars—World War 2, Korea, Vietnam—will honor their fallen at cemeteries and small gatherings. And we veterans of a new generation will visit Facebook pages forever frozen in time—living digital memorials that burst with activity long after that last status update from Anbar or Helmand. Most of us will just look, but some of us will write a short note or post an old joke, fully knowing the intended recipient will never read it. For those of us still fighting, mission requirements allow only short ceremonies, hastily organized in dusty camps in Iraq and Afghanistan to remember the recent dead, before strapping on body armor and heading out on patrol yet again.
After ten years at war, Memorial Day should be marked differently than it is today. We shouldn’t be thinking about fallen soldiers once a year when they’re dying almost daily. Veterans are a proud bunch, and most of us will mark the holiday without making too much noise about it. Still, it would be nice to see #MemorialDay trending on Twitter and have it mean something more than an excuse for a marathon Call of Duty session, or a cheap way to promote a product, or an opportunity to rent a beach house and burn through a cooler of Miller Lite. Memorial Day should not be a holiday by veterans for veterans. It is a holiday for all Americans, and we should be proud and unafraid of being sentimental. It doesn't matter how we remember, it only matters that we don't forget.
Don Gomez is an Iraq war veteran and spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division in 2003 and 2005. You can follow him on Twitter @dongomezjr.