This past Memorial Day was the 35th since my older brother sacrificed his life for his country. He did not die on a battlefield thousands of miles away, so I was more fortunate than many families losing loved ones to wars – I was with him when he passed. Although he died a lingering death caused by exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange in the Vietnam war, his fate allowed me, unlike so many other families for whom Memorial Day is sadly special, to spend the final weeks of his life with him.
Knowing the end was coming, we enjoyed long talks about life, about our childhood dreams that the realities of life forced us to change and were able to say a final goodbye. Our last words the night before he took his last breath early the next morning, passing peacefully in his sleep, was an expression of our mutual love for each other.
Although the pain of his loss is still with me and as difficult as it is to lose a loved one, I recognize there are some families for whom Memorial Day has taken an ungodly toll. They have sent several loved ones off to war, never to return.
On Memorial Day, I reflect upon the horrendous emotional suffering that must have been experienced in 1942 by the Sullivan parents who lost five sons – all serving together on board the light cruiser USS Juneau, sunk during World War II by a Japanese submarine. Out of a crew of 697, there were only 10 survivors, rescued after eight days at sea clinging to debris.
The enlistment of all five brothers had made news in their small town of Waterloo, Iowa, only days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. While their ship was torpedoed in November 1942, it was two months before the Sullivan parents were notified of the loss.
Other families suffered horrific losses during World War II as well. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor claimed 23 sets of brothers. Widower Henry Wright made three trips to his local train station to receive caskets of his three sons – the last just ten days before the war’s end.
“My war” – in Vietnam – took an ungodly toll for some families as well. The names of the fallen on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall include 31 sets of brothers along with three sets of fathers and sons. Sadly, while over 58,000 families suffered the loss of loved ones, some suffered more than others.
A Marine officer, Lt. Col. George Goodson, who served two tours in Vietnam, learned there was an assignment more emotionally draining than combat. After his second Vietnam tour, he returned to the U.S. to take an assignment as a Casualty Notification Officer. This job entailed personally notifying families a loved one was not coming home.
His area of responsibility was North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, traveling in uniform in a Marine Corps staff vehicle. While he was fortunate never to have to notify a single family of more than one loss, delivering notification of a single loss took its toll on him. Some fathers took the news stoically, perhaps waiting for alone time to release their grief; some mothers collapsed to the floor hysterically just seeing Goodson arrive in uniform, realizing why he was there.
Goodson related that he would receive basic information from Headquarters Marine Corps about a death including name, rank, serial number, date/cause of death, name/address of next of kin and the expected date of the body’s arrival home. One additional bit of information was disturbing on occasion and that was whether the casket should be opened or closed at the funeral service. Many wounds were terribly disfiguring.
Goodson attended funeral services for the fallen warriors, presenting the appropriate family member with a folded American flag ceremoniously removed from the casket. In doing so, he broke with the standing tradition of what he was supposed to say to that family member as he presented it. Instructed to say, “On behalf of a grateful nation …,” Goodson could not bring himself to do so. In view of anti-war protests and demonstrations denigrating our courageous fallen, he felt making such a statement was hypocritical. He did not believe our nation was grateful. Therefore, instead, he said what he knew was truthful: “All Marines share in your grief.”
I fear the military has once again fallen upon those disrespectful times. When it happened back then, it was imposed by an ungrateful nation. Today, however, it is self-inflicted, imposed by a president and senior military leaders who promote the armed services as built upon the militarily weak foundation of diversity, equity and inclusion. It is sad for our fallen and their families who undoubtedly never believed it would ever come to this.
In four more years, I will have lived as long without my brother as I did with him. Although each year the pain has lessened over the past three and a half decades, it is still there. I don’t know if it ever really all goes away. But I know there are other families who have suffered much more and for whom each Memorial Day is much more of a struggle.
Just like the pain that remains in my heart for my brother, there is pain too in remembering those families whom fate has caused to suffer the ungodly tragedy of multiple losses.
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