Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day: Bigger Than What You Believe

I was recently employed by the government for the second time in my life. The first time I received tax dollars for salary (which oddly is still taxed) was when I began my 8-year enlistment in the United States Army Reserves. I was just a college student then, well a first-time college student, and after a deployment to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000, I had really gotten used to cashing full-time paychecks. My girlfriend at the time had gotten a job for the 2000 Census as an enumerator. It seemed like a pretty sweet gig, so now that I find myself ten years later as a college student in need of a job, I decided to give the 2010 Census a whirl. We have to meet most everyday with our supervisors and it was at one of these meetings that I decided to stretch out the time on the timecard (sorry taxpayers, get 'em to pay me by the project and not the hour next time), I began a little small talk.

"Anyone have any Memorial Day plans?" I asked the two women pouring over timecards and questionnaires, one below drinking age the other significantly past it, ironically it is my suspicion that the underage girl drinks and the overage woman does not. I digress.

"Do you mean real Memorial Day plans, like cookouts or something?" the older woman asked.

I thought about this for a moment and said, "No. I guess if I were to call any sort of plans "real" Memorial Day plans it would be going to a graveyard or some sort of service honoring the Vets. I meant more like cookouts or something."

The older woman looked up from her paperwork at me and it seemed that she was trying to comprehend why on earth I would suggest something as morbid as visiting a graveyard on Memorial Day, but then it hit her. And that is the way it goes with most people when it comes to this holiday, myself included. Before I enlisted, I had no real thoughts at all on what the significance of Memorial Day was and often I was still in my winter mode where all I want to do is stay in and read books rather than go out and frolic in the sun.

Now that I am older, I do understand the significance and importance of this day, especially since we have been a country at war since the onset of the 21st Century. Yet, I abhor graveyards and the typical American funerary practices. I think that funeral directors, in their spacious mansions where 15% of the rooms are filled with dead bodies, are swine and slime and exploit the grieving. Who wouldn't want the best for someone loved that has dearly departed, thus air-tight, water-proof caskets with DVD drop down screens and a nightlight are pushed upon those who in a more rational moment probably had that kind of money to spend because they are good at avoiding ridiculous purchases such as this. But I digress yet again, and this is a topic for another time because when a loved one sacrifices himself or herself while wearing the military uniform, that sort of sacrifice deserves every honor and ritual available.

Paul Rieckhoff is the executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and has written a very moving piece about the significance of Memorial Day. And with all due respect to Paul, I disagree with him slightly on this because I think that the President could do more to honor the sacrifice of those veterans in more proactive ways. Although this might just be a result of my odd and perhaps nihilistic view of how we grieve for and honor our dead. I do agree with Paul's sentiments and remain ever grateful that we veterans have such a passionate ally. The sacrifices made by those in defense of the nation, whether it was for the idealism behind the drive to defeat the Nazi's or in support of a more questionable conflict, the sacrifices were made for individuals. From the heroes' own mothers, fathers, wives, children to a stranger on the bus, these sacrifices made for them were, by extension, made for all of us. And so it is our duty to honor them in any way we can, so that if we ever do enter into an era of peace, those who are fortunate enough to only know that will be able to measure the cost of this peace and how precious it will be to maintain.

I remain eternally thankful to my brothers- and sisters-in-arms that have protected their homes, their family, their neighbors with their very lives. It's okay to celebrate the freedom and community we get to enjoy because of these sacrifices with cookouts, picnics, or hell, even buying mattresses. The point is to remember why it is we celebrate today and that for some, this celebration will be eternally filled with tears.

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