I learned something special this weekend. I’m amazed that it hadn’t occurred to me before. It embarrassed me to realize that I needed to pay more attention to holidays that commemorate something important to our country. I learned the relationship between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day and developed a much keener appreciation for both holidays.
This Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I joined our family – his parents, his brother, sister-in-law, and our niece – at the family compound on a lovely lake in East Texas. Our family is weird in a wonderful way: both of us daughters-in-law adore our in-laws. We love being sisters since neither of us had one before we married into this family. As we drove to the cabin, an American flag flew at every driveway.
We spent lots of time at the lake enjoying scenery and one another. We sat on the porch listening to the unbelievable number of different bird songs, frog croaks, and watched the evening slide into night. It was peaceful in a way unlike anywhere else.
On Saturday morning, we set up tables for 60 in the Pavilion for the party that evening to celebrate the holiday. The Lake Association is great about planning events to encourage lake residents to get to know one another. It was potluck, of course, so we contributed to the wonderful smorgasbord of meats and salads, casseroles and puddings, and an unbelievable assortment of desserts. I expect there was enough food for 120 guests! But more important than the food or the music or the socializing was the program. The party was more than a chance to get together – it was truly a celebration of Memorial Day.
The evening began with the posting of the colors by a color guard of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. The tallest Scout was fully TWICE the height of the youngest participant. They were both impressive and adorable. We pledged our allegiance to the flag, and I noticed an elderly gentleman in uniform saluting smartly. As we lowered our hands from our hearts, he walked through the crowd to stand by the flag. He saluted it once again, then turned toward us and began his story.
First, he asked how many knew the significance of Memorial Day and Veterans Day and how they were different. He graciously did not comment, or even look disappointed, when quite a few responded with perplexed expressions rather than raised hands. I wondered why I had never made the connection between the two holidays and was embarrassed that I’d never given a passing thought to what they commemorated. Veteran’s Day commemorates those who fought for our country; Memorial Day commemorates those who died for their country.
The gentleman wore an Army uniform that was only a bit snug. He stood tall and removed his hat, securing it firmly under his arm. His chest full of medals spoke to a notable career in the service of his country. He unfolded a sheaf of notes, looked them over, then raised his head and said, “Don’t be thinking that all these notes mean I’ll be long-winded. Some of you out there understand the need for big print.”1 I thought his quip introduced a humorous speech, but I was mistaken.
He began by telling us how pleased he was to speak to us on Memorial Day. “Veterans’ Day is easier,” he explained, “because Veterans are here to tell their own stories.”1 He paused, and the only sounds were the birds, the frogs, and the splash of a bass that cleared the surface and fell back into the lake. “There is no greater sacrifice than to give one’s life to protect the safety of others,” he continued, “and I am honored to share with you the stories of men who helped to ensure that we would be celebrating this holiday today. I’m both happy for the opportunity to tell their stories, and I’m here and able to tell them.”1
He retired in 1998, a full bird Colonel after a 30-year career. “My story begins much earlier, in 1968 when I went to school to become a helicopter pilot. We were a good-sized group, and all of us planned to be Medevac pilots. On the first day, we gathered in a small auditorium and rose as one when the commander entered. He stood at the podium and said, Gentlemen, before you sit, introduce yourself to the man on your right and then to the man on your left. He waited until we were again seated and the room was quiet. It is likely that those two men will not come home from Vietnam. Or, perhaps, it will be you who doesn’t come home. In the years since we’ve been flying Medevac in Vietnam, 50% of our men have died in action.”1
I’m sure that we were as taken aback by those statistics and the men sitting in that room. “For various reasons, some of the men didn’t complete the course,” the Colonel continued, “but not one left because of those odds. When our class flew to Vietnam, we were seated in threes on either side of the aisle. We couldn’t help but recall the Commander’s message and we talked about it among ourselves. We all felt that we’d be among the ones coming home. Well,” he said, “not all of us did. I’ve been shot at, shot up, shot down, and shot, but by the grace of God, I did come home. From our unit, only one in four came home unhurt. Fifty percent died in service to our country, and the rest, including me, spent time in hospitals before they made it all the way home.”1
He told us the stories of how his friends had died. After all these years, he remembers each of them vividly. With each name and each story, our appreciation for the holiday grew, along with our appreciation for Colonel Gunn and his willingness to share his memories and his passion with us. When he finished speaking, we stood and moved forward to thank him. Clapping didn’t feel like the right response to such a meaningful message.
The table talk following his presentation centered on other folks’ stories of service and loss. The atmosphere was surprisingly joyous, despite the gravity of the memories. It was obvious that celebrating Memorial Day emphasizes appreciation, not grief, and we left having enjoyed the party much more than others we’ve attended. The sense of appreciation and gratitude infused the rest of our family weekend, and we found ourselves referring often to Colonel Gunn’s presentation.
I’m looking forward to Veterans’ Day. I plan to join the festivities and thank every veteran I encounter for his or her service to our country.
1. Gunn, T., personal communication, May 25, 2019.