Like many Americans without a close relative in the military, I often think of Memorial Day as basically a three-day weekend, the start of summer and a good time to buy new sheets. But this year we marked ten solid years of war. Ten years. Remember when we sneered at the Russians for ten fruitless years in Afghanistan? Well, we have them beat. We started a second war in Iraq, for spurious reasons, that took seven years to unwind. Over 6700 soldiers have died in these two wars, not as many as our years in Vietnam by a long shot (because trauma care has improved so much.) The wounded continue to come home, without legs, with head injuries, with invisible scars to their psyches. Let’s all take a moment to remember the true cost of war. And thank those who have sacrificed so much, especially the wives, husbands, children, and parents and siblings of those who died for our freedoms.
This year feels different to me. I walked through France last summer with the widow of a Vietnam veteran, a Marine who was poisoned by Agent Orange and died a few years ago, in a way none of us should. Her story, told to me on a train as we contemplated our sunny days in wine country ahead, will always stay with me.
It’s been nine years since my father, an Army lieutenant in World War II who managed to miss the fighting by studying Japanese for the invasion that never came, passed away. He is buried with so so many others at Arlington National Cemetery, in the same space as his father, a World War I veteran who left his University post and went to war in his late ’30s, already a husband and father. The clan goes back a long ways in the Americas. No doubt there are Revolutionary War soldiers, and Civil War. The first known Stewart (my grandmother’s lineage) in the new world died here in 1640. Just thinking about the sacrifices and losses, made by generations and generations, so that I can today live a life free from fear, repression, and tyrants, makes me a little teary. I will never know them, nor they me, but we are connected.
This year I wrote about about war for the first time in a novel. My character is scarred emotionally by her brief Reserve tour in Iraq in 2009. Just before she was deployed word came that her brother had been killed in battle. These things, horrible things, happen to so many families and they shouldn’t be silent. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a powerful, terrible thing, invisible yet a killer. If you know someone who needs help, please try to help them. Like the Vietnam vets who came back and were jeered at, these new veterans need empathy, to know that what they did (or had done to them) was what they were told to do and whatever it was, it’s over now. This is a scar we must live with, all of us, and help each other.
I sit here gazing at a peaceful river, under snow-capped mountains. The aspens are leafing out, a cheery green. I’ve cleaned the ashes from the fireplace and swept up the dead flies. And I am grateful to have such mundane chores today. Enjoy your chores! Have a wonderful weekend.