My goddaughter from Oaxaca, Janet Chavez Santiago, asked me, How do you celebrate Memorial Day? Well, I answered, now if we have been vaccinated, we have barbecues and drink beer in the backyard with family and friends. Some of us raise the flag and think about freedom. Maybe we play music or basketball or croquet. Perhaps we take a ride in the country or shop for online sales. It’s a three-day weekend, the beginning of summer. We are supposed to be having fun.
And, then I thought about it more. This is a tribute to Veterans, the people like my dad who was conscripted in 1943 and sent off to war in the Pacific Theatre. He was a medic because he was a biology major in college, an Ohio State University 1936 graduate who knew about cultures, petri dishes, and looking at specimens sliced and displayed on glass to evaluate under a microscope. But, that didn’t prevent him from being in the line of fire.
He never talked about it — how his ship was torpedoed and sank at Guadalcanal. How he floated in the dark, fathomless sea until rescue came. How he contracted malaria, had night sweats and nightmares his entire life. How this was a phenomenon that was then called shell shock or battle fatigue or combat fatigue. It was thought then that if the symptoms lasted longer than six months, it had nothing to do with war, but was a deep-seated psychological issue within the individual. As a society, after the Vietnam War, we came to know this more holistically as PTSD –– a lifelong nervous system response to extreme trauma.
Our dad never fully recovered from his war experience and he managed, despite lack of support from the Veteran’s Administration and a wife who was weary from his angst, to survive, father three accomplished children, teach high school history and ceramics, and live until the age of eighty-three.
During the Vietnam War, our family became anti-war activists. It was a moment in history of right-wrong. They were wrong. We were right. Our neighbors were building bomb shelters down the surburban San Fernando Valley, California, street where we lived. Our mother explored migrating to Australia. We took to protesting and joined Another Mother for Peace. Our dad led the way. He knew what war did to people.
Back then, I had disdain for those who didn’t get deferments in what we blamed as Lyndon Johnson’s War. I didn’t fully understand how conscription swept up Brown and Black people who lacked the resources to avoid service, or who sought military service as a way out of poverty and a path to developing a marketable skill. Many in the general population hailed Our Country, Right or Wrong, a justification. I didn’t fully understand how those returning from combat in 1972 with PTSD needed our full support and resources to make them well again. It was a moment of upheaval, confusion and despair. Since then, we have sent our young men and women to Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan, to Africa and the Middle East. There is always justification, which is weighed against cost of human life.
In the intervening years, I have come to honor the service of the individual who is sent by government to uphold the ideals of democratic principles. Often, this goes awry as principles get tangled up with economic priorities — access to oil, gas, trade, low-wage manufacturing, maintaining political balance of power.
I go back to our Dad, who went to war to protect us from the annihilating clutches of Nazi expansion and the insidiousness of Adolf Hitler. Most in our European family perished in the Holocaust. Since then, there have been many Holocausts: Cambodia, Sudan, Guatemala, not to mention the holocausts perpetrated agains indigenous peoples here and around the world.
It is nothing short of a miracle that our Dad survived to give us life. Today, I remember him, pay tribute to his sacrifice and tip my hat to all the Veteran’s who deserve our thanks for risking and giving their lives. I set them apart from the often misaligned political goals, ambitions and policies of nationhood.
As a footnote: I have been in Taos, NM, for two weeks. I’m settling in, embracing the landscape. At times, I wonder about the wisdom of my choice to leave North Carolina at the age of 75 and embark on another new adventure. I am the wanderer in my family. Then, I look at the mountains, the vastness of the sky, the austerity of sagebrush, the ancient culture surrounding me, the similarities between Mexico and Nuevo Mexico, and I reach a place of contentment and peace.
Have a great Memorial Day and remember those in your family who gave of themselves so that we could live.