A Fortress Daughter’s View of Memorial Day

First posted on 5/28/2006 in THE MILITARY BRAT BLOG    Reflections on the Invisible Tribe

By Mary Edwards Wertsch

Politicians like to speak as though every single member of the public is equally committed to honoring those who serve.  To my eyes, however, it seems that for a great many civilians, finding meaning in Memorial Day seems to be an optional exercise.  It is different for those of us attached to the Fortress—my shorthand term for military culture, which is so different from civilian.  For us, remembering those who served is not optional.  It is natural.  It is meaningful.  It is deeply a part of who we are.

This is something we may openly acknowledge, or keep to ourselves—but every one of us is aware of the need to remember and honor those who have given their lives in military service.  And for us that means life given during peacetime training as well as in war.  Life given in senseless accidents as well as in combat on the battlefield.  Life given in stupid brawls with barroom buddies as well as in conflict with the designated enemy.  Life given in quiet hospital beds, of natural causes, as well as in firefights or bombing raids or sea patrols.   In addition, we remember, and honor, those who returned from war but, as a result of what they experienced there, wound up sacrificing their lives in other ways:  Their health. Their sanity.  Their sobriety.  Their ability to thrive in family and community.  Every one of those men and women made a decision at some point that amounted to a blank check drawn on their own blood, their own future, for the sake of something larger.  What more can any person give?  No matter what happened later on, every serviceman or woman should be honored for that decision taken, that willingness to go forward, as well as the service he or she  went on to give.  Think of it.  They donned a uniform that committed them to go forward as directed, in response to orders given by others, in circumstances they could not foresee, for reasons with which they may or may not agree, but which they vowed, for the sake of a functional military, to obey.  This is so unlike civilian America.  This is so far off the public’s radar it might as well take place in a strange parallel universe.

For us brats, the sons and daughters of career military personnel, children of the Fortress, this Memorial Day time of remembrance can be an excruciating mix of pride and pain, even an emotional vortex.  Some of us go to ceremonies, or cemeteries.  Some listen to radio or watch programs devoted to military sacrifice.  Some go over old pictures or letters.  Some give quiet time to unvoiced memories.  And for most of us, I would venture, this is not a simple or superficial process.  We feel the swell of pride in service given, the open admiration for the knowledge and ability that service required, the awe of bravery overcoming fear.  And this may well be intermixed with very personal and particular memories of longing, of loss, of disappointment, of fear, of rage, of sorrow for what should have been and could not be.  In that sense, all of us from military families pay the high price demanded by the Fortress.

Let us remember, too, not only the warriors, male and female, and not only ourselves, the children, but the spouses as well.  At the time I was growing up, this meant, with rare exceptions, wives.  Women who signed on to the military life in an adjunct role, who entered voluntarily into a life that would be demanding beyond anything they could imagine.  We will devote many a future posting in this blog to them.

What I’ve been saying here suggests a direction, I think, for our personal remembrances this weekend.  My suggestion is that we allow ourselves to feel fully, seeking out activities that help us do so, and to strive always for compassion for all, including most especially our family members.  Let us give our own warriors their due, with love and pride and the grace of forgiveness.

Finally, I want to share something I heard this morning that affected me deeply and for which I am very grateful.  It was the program “Speaking of Faith” on National Public Radio.  This morning the host, Krista Tippett, devoted the program to “The Soul of War,” and interviewed a chaplain and Iraq veteran, Major John Morris, who speaks with extraordinary insight and eloquence.  It is possible to hear the program and print out the transcript free of charge by going to this site:  http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/soulofwar/index.shtml.

Mary Edwards Wertsch is the author of the 1991 non-fiction book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress.

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