Honoring Memorial Day means asking real questions to real veterans.
The problem with holidays like Memorial Day is the intangibility of the whole thing. While Occupy Wall Street inveighs against the 1 percent, the 1 percent most of us forget about are the Americans serving in our wars. Many people don't know anyone currently in the military, and even fewer know actual war veterans or men and women who have died in combat, the people Memorial Day was created to recognize following the bloodshed of the Civil War. Without ever meeting or talking to veterans about their experiences, honoring them on days like tomorrow or Veterans Day rings hollow. We're told that giving thanks to soldiers is the right thing to do, and we think we glean the horrors of war from films like Saving Private Ryan. But what do we really know about the ex-soldier's plight? What right do we even have pretending to empathize with them on Memorial Day with our yellow ribbons and our meager offers of thanks?
I've never been in the military, and today I'm close with only one person who saw combat in Iraq. But I was raised by a father who did two tours of duty in Vietnam as an Army captain. My dad doesn't really like to talk about his time at war, but when he does so he looks away, as if looking at me while telling me of the violence and sadness would sully me in some way. My mother—she and my dad are now divorced—says my father used to have awful nightmares from which he'd wake up screaming and drenched in sweat. When I asked my dad, who has scoffed at drugs my entire life, if he'd ever smoked marijuana while in Vietnam, he said no. "Killing people every day fucks you up enough," he said.
Whenever I think of the sadness and sacrifice of soldiers on Memorial Day, I think of my dad, and one story in particular. It's a story that begins in a Lebanese restaurant in Saudi Arabia, where my dad lives, and to me it says more about what happens to soldiers at war than any gory war movie I've seen or book I've read.
This was in 2008, and during our meal we’d been talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the former of which was raging less than 600 miles from us. Our chat got so involved that my dad took the long way back to his house so we could have time to finish the conversation. We pulled into his driveway and, still not satisfied, my father turned off the car and we sat there in the dark and the all-consuming midnight heat that wraps Saudi Arabia.
"One of the worst parts about my life," my dad said after a few moments, "is that you will never know the man I was before I went to that war. You’ll only ever know the guy that came back, and that breaks my heart more than anything else."
It seemed like more of an apology than a statement, and I stayed up all night thinking about it, in the darkness and the heat, thousands of other people’s fathers and sons killing and dying a few hundred miles away.
A true memorial to soldiers at war is acknowledging that every one of them will return a changed man or woman, a kid turned adult via a baptism in blood and screams. Whether that change is bad or good is up to each individual soldier to decide. But we as a nation need to accept that many of our fighting men and women will be haunted by the transformation for decades after they return from the battlefield. Wondering "what if..." will keep them up at night. Our yellow ribbons do nothing for their sleepless nights.