Memorial Day 2017: I Have a Soldier to Remember

Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.

I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.

This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.

I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.

“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.

I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”

Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.

After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”

Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.

“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”

 And it was.

Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.

It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.

This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.


Memorial Day, an essay written in 2003

“ . . . Gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime . . . ” [General John Logan, 1868]

Joh Mahaffey old tomb

*

The day lilies come back to stay. Honeysuckle and morning glories climb fences and trellises. Impatiens and begonias border sidewalks. Cannas are on the rise. Clover, wild onions, and dandelions spangle the yard.

It’s Memorial Day, the unofficial kick-off of summer. It’s a long weekend, a day off work.

Schools are out, pools are open, and it’s time to clean the patio. It’s time for the first watermelon cutting, time to crank out the first bucket of homemade ice cream. It’s time for cookouts. Time to roll out the grill and slap on some burgers. It’s time for my husband to try out that new steak injector he got for Christmas.

By Memorial Day, my yard is usually in tip-top shape—beds neatly mulched, annuals planted, and pots of geraniums placed on the porch and patio.

Not so this year. Weeds cover the beds like heavy blankets.

Weeds also fill my mind, getting in the way of things I want to do. I can only think about one thing. Dad. He’s ill. In the hospital. Gone from us. I sleep, I cry some, I don’t care about the weeds.

*

I hate thistle. It spreads everywhere—along roadways, in pastures.  It’s a tall and gangly weed, crooked and awkward. It’s repulsive. It reminds me of a fibroid growing unwanted somewhere.

A thistle is growing in the gravel parking lot behind my office building in Cool Springs. I cut a stalk and lay it on my desk because I feel like looking at something ugly.

thistle

It is spiny and coarse with thorns all up and down it. It has jagged prickly leaves, and on top of rows of prickly bracts, sits a purple flower.

The plant is hard to handle; thorns stick in my flesh and hurt. But the flower is what surprises me. It’s purple, soft, delicate. And it doesn’t belong on that awful stalk.

Shades of purple filaments stick up, ordered in a circle around a center of tiny white seeds in a swirl pattern. The seeds seem protected by the outer hairs that curl gently around them.

I touch the flower to my face. It feels like the big round make-up brush I apply powdered blush with. It leaves inky marks on my cheek.

The flower is quite lovely, its fragrance sweeter than I ever imagined.

*

More than four million Americans, ten percent of the population over age sixty-five, have dementia, an ugly disease causing a severe loss of thinking and reasoning abilities. The families of those four million people face anguish, frustration, and grief, watching a loved one slowly slip away, even while continuing to live.

Live, meaning to breathe in, breathe out, walk or pace or shuffle, and talk even if it’s only to someone who doesn’t exist. Live, without a shred of quality or an ounce of dignity. Live in the same old body with an altered personality and a new behavior. Live, eventually, some place other than their own home.

Delusions and hallucinations are common, such as believing money has been stolen, a spouse has been unfaithful, or unwelcome guests are living in the house. Those with dementia see and hear people who aren’t really there, and the fantasies are realities that slowly take over their lives.

Having a loved one with dementia is like having a death in the family with no funeral.

*

Memorial Day is for honoring our nation’s war dead. It’s a day to put flowers on soldiers’ graves and hang the flag in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to our country.

I have two fourth great-grandfathers and a third great-grandfather who fought in the Revolution. I have a piece of the original tombstone of one of them, placed in a mulched bed in front of a Burning Bush. Maybe I’ll put a flower on it.

Dad served in World War II. He rode with the Great Third Army and General George Patton.  Dad was a sergeant, a frontline medic, and got a Bronze Star with Valor.

“War is hell,” Dad said.

grave2

“He has terrible memories he will never forget,” Mama said. “When he came home from the war, I listened to him talk day after day until he could sleep and stop shaking.”

“War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!” Patton said to his troops.

No soldier is ever one hundred percent sane after the initial indoctrination of war. No soldier is ever free from emotional scars related to perpetual exposure to imminent danger.

Dad’s dementia has somehow pulled out the war experiences he spent sixty years trying to forget, and they are tormenting him.

War is hell. Soldiers die. Soldiers come home from the battlefront to live among innocents who stick SUPPORT OUR TROOPS ribbons on their cars, and they try to resume normal lives after what they’ve seen and where they’ve been and what they’ve done.

 


Memorial Day

At the foot of Dad’s grave

The day lilies are back. Honeysuckle and morning glories climb fences. Begonias bloom in pots and line sidewalks. Cannas are on the rise. Clover, wild onions, and dandelions spangle the grass.

It’s Memorial Day, the kick-off of summer.  Memorial Day is for honoring our nation’s war dead. It’s a day to put flowers on soldiers’ graves and hang the flag in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to our country.

I have three 4th great grandfathers who fought in the Revolution. I have a piece of the original tombstone of one of them, standing up in the bed of irises I planted in Dad’s memory after he died.

Dad served in World War II — he was a sergeant who received a field commission to second lieutenant, a front-line medic, and got a Bronze Star with Valor.

“War is hell,” Dad said.

“War is a bloody, killing business,” General George Patton said. “You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!”

“The first exposure, whether from being wounded, the scream of an artillery projectile, a buddy with a gaping wound exposing his guts, cries of pain, stench of blood, decaying body parts, the odor from a flame thrower producing that of roast meat, your buddy blown to bits, missing a limb or two, the realization that he’ll never walk or talk, a pig devouring the guts of an enemy, are forever etched into the brain matter,” said Dr. Harold Rosenberg, a WWII veteran.

Dad’s first exposure came at Mars La Tour, when his ambulance was hit by a plane. He jumped out and opened the back door to check on his men, and one fell out, dead on the ground, his head blown half off, brains and blood spilling. Dad never forgot.

I should go home this weekend and put flowers and a fresh flag on Dad’s grave. Mama’s, too. She was a veteran.

Receiving Mama’s flag

But instead I will stay here. Maybe cook hamburgers on the charcoal grill. Wait for my neighbor to hang his flag off the front porch…I don’t know why he hasn’t done it yet…maybe he’s too old and feeble to reach up…maybe I should offer to do it for him.

And while I do these things, I will remind myself that our nation is still at this killing business, and sons of others are over there learning to spill the blood of the enemy before their own is spilled — carrying the torch my 4th great grandfathers lit when they killed those who would keep them from making a country…carrying the torch my father held in Trier and Bastogne, carrying the torch my friend held in the jungle of Vietnam, the same torch another friend’s father held in the Hobo Woods when he lost his life two months before my friend was born.

Because of them, life today for me is grilled burgers, climbing roses, ice cream, day lilies, and a flag that waves in sunshine.


Memorial Day

The day lilies are back. Honeysuckle and morning glories and pretty roses climb fences and trellises. Impatiens and begonias border sidewalks. Clover, wild onions, and dandelions spangle the yard. It’s time for the first watermelon cutting, time to toast marshmallows, time to slap some burgers on the grill.

It’s Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is for honoring our nation’s war dead. It’s a day to put flowers on soldiers’ graves and hang the flag in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to our country.

I have three 4th-great grandfathers who fought in the Revolution. I have a piece of the original tombstone of one of them, placed in a mulched bed of creeping Jenny in the backyard.

Dad served in World War II and rode with the Third Army under George Patton. He was a sergeant, a front-line medic, and got a Bronze Star with Valor. “War is hell,” he said.

“War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!” Patton said.

No soldier is ever one hundred percent sane after the initial indoctrination of war. No soldier is ever free from emotional scars related to perpetual exposure to imminent danger. “The first exposure, whether from being wounded, the scream of an artillery projectile, a buddy with a gaping wound exposing his guts, cries of pain, stench of blood, decaying body parts, the odor from a flame thrower producing that of roast meat, your buddy blown to bits, missing a limb or two, the realization that he’ll never walk or talk, a pig devouring the guts of an enemy, are forever etched into the brain matter. Unlike a lost limb or a wound from injured tissues, cerebral scars cannot be seen. But they are there.” (Dr. Harold Rosenberg, WWII veteran)

War is hell. Soldiers die. Soldiers come home from the battlefront to live among innocents who stick SUPPORT YOUR TROOPS ribbons on their cars, and they try to resume normal lives after what they’ve seen and where they’ve been and what they’ve been baptized in.

So when you fly your flag today and think of the war dead, remember those at battle now. We’ve had over 4 thousand deaths and 30,000 wounded. We’ve got 150,000 men in boots on the ground. Thirty percent of them will develop mental problems within three or four months after they come home. That’s 45,000 boys the ages of my sons who are coming back to mamas and daddies and wives and babies and in dire need of help.

Folks, it’s gonna take a whole lot more than those damn yellow stickers on your SUV’s to take care of these boys!