Memorial Day is a meaningful day to many Americans. Symbolic to some, to be sure, and very personal to others! I am a veteran of the United States Navy. I served from 1956 to 1960. I admit that this day is personal to me.
I remember a pilot who served on the USS Oriskany, who lost his life when his plane crashed in the Sea of Japan. We always called him Mister Clean, because of his bald head. A peacetime accident, yet a fallen hero.
World War I veterans, worldwide, have all passed away. Claude Stanley Choules, 110, of Australia, was the last survivor of 70 million men who saw active service in the 1914-18 war, however, Florence Green, of Great Britain, a member of the Royal Air Force, died two weeks shy of her 111th birthday, Feb. 7, 2012.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 4,734,991 U.S. servicemen served in World War I and 53,402 died in battle.
The VA said 16,112,566 U.S. servicemen served worldwide during World War II, with 291,557 killed in battle, 113,842 succumbing to nontheater deaths and 670,846 wounded. An estimated 1,711,000 veterans are living today, and the National WWII Museum said 900 are dying each day.
The Korean War saw 5,720,000 U.S. servicemen serving worldwide, with 1,789,000 serving in theater and 36,574 killed and 103,284 wounded. The VA estimates 2,275,000 Korean War-era veterans are still living.
The Vietnam War saw 8,744,000 serving worldwide, with 3,403,000 deployed to Southeast Asia. A total of 58,220 deaths were recorded, with three times that number wounded. More than 7 million Vietnam-era veterans are still living.
Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990-91) saw another 383 fatalities.
The Global War on Terror continues to add to that toll. According to current Department of Defense figures, Operation Enduring Freedom cost 2,187 American lives in Afghanistan and another 133 lives in countries throughout the world. Operation Iraqi Freedom saw 4,423 U.S. service men and women killed; and Operation New Dawn (the Arabian Peninsula after Sept. 1, 2010) has cost another 66 lives.
The original observance of Memorial Day, declared in May 1868, was to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the Civil War.
“...Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from his honor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan...” – General John Logan, General Order No. 11, 5 May 1868.
Many observe this day to honor all those who served in our Armed Forces. This is an admirable idea, and deserved as well.
And, yet, for many, Memorial Day is merely a three-day holiday that signifies the start of the summer season. Americans drive to the beach, the mountains, the parks, anywhere we can to escape the drudgery and repetitive daily activities.
By this day, many schools dismiss nationwide for the summer. Teachers are relieved that they now have a time to relax and recharge. Moms and Dads search for child-care because it takes two salaries to live in this modern world.
Sadly, not much thought is given to the memory of heroes. Willie Nelson sang “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” and being from Texas, I subscribe to that idea. However, I must also include the Heroes of our American Military.
Too many Americans living in the 21st Century have ignored these heroes. Is it too much to ask that we set aside one day to honor those who served our country?
On my 17th birthday, July 1956, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Honestly, patriotism played no part of my enlistment. I simply wanted “out of Dodge.” I was ready to take the first bus or any other means available going anywhere from Palestine, Texas. That was then. Some 50-plus years later, I now know much more about patriotism. I know that my time in the Navy was not especially eventful. I enlisted, I served my time, I was honorably discharged, married, had children, and went about the business of making a home for my family.
Had I been born a short few years later, I would have been in Vietnam. With each news report of casualties, I hurt. I lost shipmates, classmates and family members. My country was at war.
Today, I feel humbled each time I see or hear of any veteran who passes from this life. Yet Vietnam holds a special place in my heart, not because I served, but because someone else did and I know that person took my place.
You may have a very different opinion about wars and the like. However, if you feel that way, then on this day, at least thank those who made it possible to voice your different opinion.
My friends, we do not honor wars. We honor those who died in those wars. They had a purpose. We purpose to honor them.
Visit a memorial, place flags or flowers on the graves of fallen heroes, think about the true meaning of Memorial Day and fly the flag.
My flag is flying; is yours?
Pete Robertson is a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Fruitvale.