Today is Memorial Day and I write as if a mysterious time machine has thrust me backwards and forwards at the same time. The day is especially poignant in that I seem unusually touched by scenes of old men remembering their days of war.
I happen to be very fond of one of those old men having spent 45 years of my life married to him. Now, mind you, we have enough of an age difference that he had joined the Navy and prepared to die for his country before I could walk.
Needless to say, I have no memory of the “big one” and my only family mementos are a set of ration books that give witness to the common sacrifice of Americans in the face of World War II.
Still, I was advantaged during my marriage to experience his memories and sense the feelings behind his words. My first exposure was in Farragut, Idaho, years ago. We stopped at a beautiful scenic spot with acres of fields that overlooked a body of water. The site was preserved as historical land that housed and trained thousands of young men who cycled through on their way to fight for their country and, perhaps, die for their country.
My husband arranged to graduate from high school early and enlisted before he was 18. He was among the thousands of men who felt the calling; to whom, it never occurred to get a deferment for any reason.
The Farragut photos of bright young men with and without futures before them touched that part of me that we all share; that is the deep sadness we feel over the most generous sacrifice anyone can knowingly make. Many moist eyes were in the room that day.
My husband was sent to Farragut to train as a medical corpsman and ready himself to be part of one of the contingents that stormed the beaches of Japan. As history informs us, he never went because President Truman ordered the dropping of atom bombs that effectively ended the war with Japan.
Memories and moments surface in our conversations throughout the years. In somewhat of a grand finale, we visited Normandy Beach in France. The area has been memorialized to the men and women who fought and who died to save Europe from Nazi domination.
The Normandy memorials are on a much grander scale than Farragut. Cemeteries of small white monuments populate a wide area, each named for the country of the fallen. We feel a strange mix of sadness, honor and hope in the presence of history. The awe we feel is nearly overwhelming.
My husband bought a cap with the date 6th June 1944 embroidered above the flags of Canada, Britain, France and the USA, symbolic of the enormous collaboration it took to defeat the Germans. So, if you happened to see a man with such a cap the day before this column is published, he’s my husband.
Who will remember?
The Sunday before the holiday, I saw two items that inspired this column. One was on the front page of our almost daily newspaper. The edition featured the reminisces of a 91-year-old man, Marion Yandell, about his experience as a Marine at Iwo Jima.
Young Yandell and his fellow Marines fought for 18 days and, as history tells us, they defeated the Japanese and raised the flag. The very picture of the act became an icon of victory. His memories and pain are reserved for those who died in this horrific battle, not the victory.
“I suffer more now thinking about the guys than I ever did before when I was in combat,” says now old Yandell.
His pain has spanned over 70 years and is everlasting. Tears come easily.
The second item was shown on “60 Minutes” that evening. Ben Scardon, a 98-year-old man, was remembering the Bataan Death March in which the Japanese marched tens of thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war for 66 miles in 1942.
Scardon was featured because each year he marches a simulated march through deserts of New Mexico to commemorate the walk and honor the friends who lost their lives on or because of the toll the march took on their bodies. He will march on the anniversary of the walk as long as he is alive and able. He asks us not to forget.
The veterans of World War II are disappearing. My husband is one of the youngest and, if all goes well for him as it has, he will be one of the last to die and take the memory with him.
Yes, we had Korea — husband went back, this time in the Air Force. We had Vietnam. Both ended in a tie, I guess. We honor lives lost but have no days of honor for these wars.
More recently and seemingly neverending are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, conflicts supposedly started in response to our 9-11 invasion. We were joined in Afghanistan by most of our NATO allies who sent their young men and women, some who never returned.
We are still sending young men and now, more young women, to risk their lives. They seem to be our only sacrifice but, they, as a knowing top official opined, are volunteers after all, as if to suggest we need not grieve their sacrifice.
My grief today is profound, confused and longing for shared sacrifice and the striving of liberty-minded nations to end wars and unwanted domination.
Today, our coalitions are being worn thin in that our leaders are turning away from allies such as NATO, partners in magnificent collaboration and who share values of democracy. Instead, we are dancing with men with swords who do not allow women in the same room to touch the same golden orb.
We are selling modern day swords of destruction to countries even though they are known to have countrymen who helped finance the 9-11 attack. Despite our war against all “terrorism” spawned in the Middle East, our new policy aligns us with the Sunni against the Shia, further deepening us in a centuries-old conflict of tribes.
Our new policy is to no longer make judgment on issues of human rights violations in other countries and allows us to make “deals.” Our new policy praises and begins to align with the leader of the country who has a goal and acts to disrupt our democracy.
We no longer promise to keep our word on the issues of our day such as stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons or doing our part in lowering carbon emissions into the environment.
I barely recognize us as a country whose word is only reliable until the next leader is elected. I thought that was somewhere else.
The world I know of shared purpose is breaking apart.
Who will remember who we once were if we forget what we fought for and why and the many who made the most generous sacrifice anyone can knowingly make?
Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.