The warm air rises and feels sharp on my skin. It sends signals to my nerves that Spring is retreating, and Summer is advancing. The signal triggers a fight or flight response that embodies the seasons transforming and the damage it remembers. Late April, the anticipation starts towards the inevitable crescendo of Memorial Day. The placid memories of kayaking rivers are washed away by perilous canal crossings, the crackle of late night bonfires are consumed by toxic plumes of smoke escaping burn pits, and family bbqs overlap with anniversaries of those who are never coming home.
The spring offensive and its announcement in Afghanistan is no secret, and it has become quite publicized and anticipated. I use to dream about spring but now it only reminds me of those I lost and the price that was paid. Time continues to separate me from my military service time, and helped wounds to close and scars begin to appear. The rising temperature and seasonal change stops me in my tracks. Like muscle memory, every part of me begins to awaken. Songs bring back smiles but the smell of ammonia reminds me of sweat-drenched cammies and the glint of metal shining transports me back to the battlefield crosses draped with dog tags of those who can’t come home.
Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Families and friends will spend time together at gatherings and parades. Some people will also visit military cemeteries to remember. Despite the joyous occasions, I still find myself stuck in myriad of emotions as I reflect on where I was not long ago and where I am now. Every year on this weekend, I find myself cemented at the intersection of grief, guilt, and pain. I struggle to balance living a life that celebrates all who paid the ultimate price without being consumed by the tidal wave of loss that surrounds me. Slowly the undercurrent tries to pull me back out to a place where anger is my only buoy, and I can feel self-destruction lurking beneath the waves.
My family and I have been here before, and we will be here again. Now, more than ever, I have focused on the positivity that can come from celebrating the lives of the lost. Yet each time my phone rings from a friend who is in the same place as I, I feel the pull and see the waves begin to envelope me. I had never imagined that the process of remembering a friend could lead me down such a dark road. For too long, I have tried to keep this hidden hurt and guilt buried but the truth is plain to see. The tightrope of remembrance has bested me more often than not. I fear I will fall but my fear gives me an edge and focus.
Recently, my family and I visited Arlington National Cemetery, a place we have been many times before. For the first time, I was awestruck by the scene as the shuttle rolled through the grounds. Each hill crests revealing the final resting places of those now gone. Too many of them are familiar names. My children were born in the post 9/11 world and their world has always been at war. I have always struggled with ensuring they understand the importance of serving a greater good, and how it may come at an unprecedented cost. I have tried to teach them that you should honor those who have paid this price. Walking through these hallowed grounds with my two daughters, they hold my hands tight. They know, now more than ever, I need their strength to get back to shore.
Not long after leaving the Marine Corps I realized that my ability to compartmentalize was one of my greatest strengths. But each time you pack away trauma, you take up more and more space inside of you. You will eventually run out of room, and it will all come spilling out. Since coming home, my hard exterior has been thawed by my family. The love of my wife saved me and the love of my daughters has changed my capacity to feel beyond what I had ever known possible. This time of year will always be hard for many others, and myself, but I am committed to truly honor the sacrifice of those lost. I will continue to live a life that remembers their sacrifice, honors their memory, and ensures their legacy lives on. When I walk this Monday through the cemetery with my wife and. daughters, hand in hand as they lay down flags upon the headstones, I will whisper to them the reason we are here is because all of us gave some but some of us gave all.