Memorial Day 2009

During the Milblogger’s conference in Washington DC, I went to Arlington National Cemetery to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a ceremony that happens every half hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is a somber reminder of the sacrifice many have made in the service of this nation.

As I was leaving Arlington I ran into a young man with his wife and new baby walking along one of the paths. He had a 101st Airborne Division tattoo and I naturally engaged him in conversation, asking which unit he’d served with and when he’d been in Iraq. We talked for a moment while his wife and child stood by and then, as I began to leave, I thanked him for his service and welcomed him home.

He sort of ducked his head for a second and then looked at me and shyly said, “thank you too”. I smiled. He ducked his head again and glanced at his family. Then, looking me straight in the eye, but in a voice that was lower so only I could hear he said, “I have some friends here I need to say goodbye too”. He said it knowing I’d understand. I nodded in answer, reached out and put my hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. We parted, he with his family and me with my thoughts.

What that young soldier was doing is what Memorial Day is all about. And our chance meeting drove that simple point home to me as nothing has before. Memorial Day is about remembering those in the military who made the ultimate sacrifice. General John J Pershing once said of that sacrifice that “time will never dim the glory of their deeds”. But unless we make a real effort to remember those who have fallen, they may not be remembered the way they deserve to be remembered.

My father served for 36 years in the Army and was a veteran of 3 wars. He was an armor officer – a tanker. During WWII he fought on Saipan, Leyte and Okinawa. As you might imagine he was a tough old guy not given much to displays of emotion. But on Saipan my dad lost his best friend in the world to a sniper. Lt Bill Dorey was his name and he was from PA. Dorey and my father were extremely close, more like brothers than friends. Dorey was a heck of soldier too – recognized by all as an outstanding tank commander and leader. My father called him the best armor officer he ever knew, and that was tall praise from my dad.

Dorey was killed trying to help a wounded GI get out of the line of fire. From the time I can remember, I knew Dorey’s name and story. It was one of the few stories my dad would tell us about his war experiences. But you could tell Dorey’s death haunted him.

Of course, life goes on, families are raised and we get old. Some 50 years after the war my father and mother were traveling through PA and Dorey’s home town happened to be nearby. My dad was active in veterans organizations and he figured that if anyone would know of Bill Dorey, it would be the local American Legion post. They stopped by and asked. Like I said, it was 50 years after the war, and no one there knew the name. But one of the men went to the back and brought out an old scrapbook saying a lot of the guys from the area who had served were in there. Sure enough, about half way through, my dad turned the page and there was a picture of a forever young and smiling Bill Dorey, in uniform and exactly as my dad remembered him.

My mom says my dad just broke down when he saw Dorey’s picture. All of that had been bottled up in there since the war and just needed to come out. 50 years later, he was still grieving over Dorey’s loss. All his life he’d kept Dorey’s memory alive. Not only that, he’d passed it on to his sons. And I’ve passed it on to my son. I’ve also added names from my era to be remembered, like my good friend Stuart Barnette – “Barney” – who was killed in action in Vietnam.

Memorial Day is about those who gave up their tomorrows for our today. They’re the men and women who forever gave up the chance to see and hold the child born while they were at war. The chance to again caress their husband or wife and tell them they love them. The chance to hold their mother’s hand and bask in her sweet smile one last time. Or to stare in pure awe at their first grandchild.

They gave it all in the service of their country, and it is our job as citizens of this great land to remember them and their sacrifice. So the next time you are near a national cemetery, take some time and stop in with your family and spend a moment with the heroes who are buried there.

They are all someone you should know.

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