When I was a girl of 8 or 10, Memorial Day meant a fight over a greased watermelon all the way to the deep end of the neighborhood pool, relay races where the swimmers had to be fully clothed, all while barbecue still on the bone roasted on a spit in the shade.
I had two uncles recently returned from Vietnam, and somewhere along those years my grandmother gave me a bright green silk handkerchief embroidered with World War I insignia, a memento from the last Monday in May someone had given to her as a girl. But I must confess that the holiday first known as Decoration Day, set aside in 1868 to honor our war dead, for most of my life meant more than anything else the start of those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
For many of us that changed in 2002. That May we remembered not only men and women killed in U.S. war history, but the 343 firefighters and paramedics and the 60 police officers killed in the line of duty eight months earlier on 9/11. That Memorial Day held ceremonies even to honor rescue dogs that died after inhaling dust at the World Trade Center site during the search for bodies. And by that time there had been 61 U.S. casualties in the war on terror in Afghanistan.
The next year, with war underway in Afghanistan and Iraq, WORLD began a running series of Memorial Day articles to recount the stories and to honor the legacy of those killed in action. In 2003 that included 19-year-old Devon Jones, who wanted to become a teacher but didn't have money for college so signed up for the Army, and found himself deployed to Iraq. "Devon never became a certified public-school teacher, but he was definitely a teacher before he died," said a long-time friend. "He showed us all what it is to live for God."
In May 2004 we turned to Nicholas Berg, the U.S. businessman in Iraq beheaded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that month-an early episode in the insurgent saga pitting the United States against al-Qaeda in Iraq militants. In 2005 we returned to Afghanistan, where the U.S. death toll spiked to 131 that year (from 59 the previous year) and never went down again.
Our 2006 coverage focused on the loss of life among the Tennessee National Guard's 278th Regimental Combat Team-a unit that in 2009 will deploy again, this time to Afghanistan. The long-running, déjà vu quality of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan wearies us, making the effort to honor the fallen all the more important. I can testify personally for reporters that sitting among grieving loved ones to hear their story is particularly grim, exhausting work. So is standing beside the stretcher where a young Marine lies, his lower face blown off by an IED just exploded down the road in Anbar Province.
What draws us each Memorial Day to examine this special kind of sacrifice, this peculiar sadness? Faith, hope, and love. First, the test of faith: The family friend of young Army Cpl. Matthew Wallace told me last year how he was "torn between confidence in Christ and his mission, and the horrors of his daily life." We read of faith under fire this year from the commander's perspective in the interview with Lt. Donovan Campbell (see "Humbled through warfare").
Hope? The horrors of war can only point us to the hope of resurrected life. Jesus knew this, making plain in Matthew 24 that war is a sign of the close of the age. And hope is made alive in war survivors-men like Edward Treski (see "To hell and back") who faced the worst of World War II suffering yet came home, married, went to work every day, and left a lasting legacy, a still more excellent way.
But what of love? What can a soldier's duty teach us of love? When faith and hope left him, and he despaired, writes Campbell, he realized that love remained. "Love was expressed in the only currency that mattered in combat: action-a consistent pattern running throughout the large and the small, a pattern of sacrifice that reinforced the idea that we all cared more for the other than we did for ourselves." Love was why one of his men walked backward on patrol, he said. Love allowed them to love their enemies. And to lay down their lives.
And there is a final reason we need a day to remember their sacrifice: We forget.
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