This weekend, we mark Memorial Day, the time set aside by our nation to remember the sacrifice which has made us great. But in the din of baseball games and barbecues (which, don’t get me wrong, our family loves, too) sometimes the past takes a backseat to the party.
MemorialDay.org says, “Memorial Day started off as a somber day of remembrance; a day when Americans went to cemeteries and placed flags or flowers on the graves of our war dead. It was a day to remember ancestors, family members, and loved ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice. But now, too many people “celebrate” the day without more than a casual thought to the purpose and meaning of the day. How do we honor the 1.8 million that gave their life for America since 1775? How do we thank them for their sacrifice?”
My son is about to turn 9. All four of his great grandfathers served their country honorably in World War II. All four were lucky enough to come home alive, to raise families, and live long lives, during which they largely shied away from telling the stories of their wartime experiences. I understand why, and I respect it. But now, two generations later, far fewer families are personally feeling the impact of having a loved one serve in the military. My son knows almost no one who has served, or is serving, in the armed forces. Too much of the sacrifice is on television, behind glass, in a library book, tucked away in a closet.
Which is exactly from where my in-laws pulled this cleanly pressed, decorated uniform that belonged to my husband’s paternal grandfather. There are surely thousands much like it in closets across the country. More probably have been lost or given away. But they all once belonged to a soldier, a sailor, a marine, and others in the various branches of the military.
Most likely, the wearer is gone. And unfortunately, as in the case of my grandfather-in-law, even their official military records may also be gone (his were among the millions lost in a fire at a records facility before electronic records were kept.)
I sensed a drift in my generation, and even more in my son’s, slowly away from an understanding of and appreciation for the harsh realities of war, towards lives lived in peacefulness that someone else, far away, had earned. It was as if war was almost fiction. A very compelling, but nearly hard to believe story. Except it isn’t.
Men and women actually wore those uniforms. Families actually sent their sons and daughters and husbands and wives and brothers and sisters off, never knowing if or when they would see them alive. (And of course, families still go through this now.)
I want my children to deeply understand and truly appreciate the sacrifice, as much as anyone who grows up nearly entirely in peace can. If I’m being honest, I feel I need to understand better myself.
So when my in-laws downsized homes, and asked if we wanted Joe Thompson’s Army dress uniform, I said we absolutely did.
Now I want to share one small way we’re turning it into a living lesson for my son (and one day, my daughter), my husband and me.
One by one, my boy is choosing a ribbon, medal, patch, or pin on Grandpa Joe’s jacket, and researching it.
We use the Pentagon’s Institute of Heraldry site as much as possible, but also supplement with other military information sites. We read about the exact title of each decoration, what year it was issued by the government, and what qualified the wearer to don it.
We’ve learned that this red, rainbow colored ribbon is a World War II Victory Medal. A brightly colored symbol that would have allowed Joe to instantly recognize a fellow veteran as one of the 16 million (16 MILLION) who served in that war. If you had asked me before we started researching, I would have never correctly guessed there were 16 million. Somehow my regular classroom history lessons failed to teach me that. (No, I’m not blaming my teachers. I’m blaming myself, and plain old human nature.)
Somehow, it hasn’t been until I felt that I needed to impress this family history on my children that I was truly capable of learning it myself. I guess that is one of the little known gifts of parenting.
We are learning that Joe earned a Bronze Star, although we will likely never know why, and that it was General George C. Marshall who wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, because ten years prior to that the government had begun awarding the Air Medal to those who distinguished themselves in aerial combat, and the General felt his ground troops, who were doing such difficult and deadly work, needed the morale boost of being honored, too.
Somehow, in his almost-fourth-grade handwriting, these stories, this history comes brilliantly alive. It matters. They are, in steadily improving penmanship, made our own.
My children and I never got to meet Great Grandpa Joe, or ask him to tell any of his stories. We never got to meet Great Grandpa Ed Benesh, either, and it’s likely he would have refused to tell his story even if we had asked, but I understand it bears a striking resemblance to the movie, Saving Private Ryan.
We cannot ask them now. But, I can assure you, Ed’s uniform is next.
And Great Grandpa Les Cummins after that. And Great Grandpa George Roenker after that.
One by one, pin by pin, medal by medal, we will learn, and write, and remember.
So this Memorial Day, I give thanks that my children and I and their father all live in this, the greatest country that Earth has ever known, and that we live in relative peace, all because of those who wore the uniform, and continue to wear one to this very day.
And I am proud of my son. Though God willing he will likely never know the feeling of burying a loved one in a flag-draped coffin, he at least will be able to tell the stories – because he will know them by heart – of the people in his own past who were.