All of my people who served – my dad, my uncles, my cousins – returned home from their military deployments. My dad, who served in the Navy with his parents’ permission, turned 17 shortly before the end of WWII and never saw real combat. My uncles, my mother’s brothers, both served during the Vietnam War, one in the Navy and the other in the Army. Neither will speak of what they saw there, even today. My cousins, my mother’s sister’s children, served also. They all returned home safely, but not without losing friends.
We talked about none of these things last Friday, sitting at Boyette’s catfish restaurant in Tiptonville, TN, where my husband, children and I drove (with one of the four dogs in tow) to meet my uncles for lunch. My uncles wear their Vietnam Veteran ball caps proudly now and even went together to see the memorial in Washington a couple of years ago. But when we’re together, even on this special holiday weekend, what they want to talk about is normal stuff – fishing and families and travel. They want real hugs and time to visit and to hear about happy times. When I said something about Memorial Day, they shrugged it off. They came home; it’s not their day.
Last year my friend Paul started a Memorial Day 5k race to benefit Forever Young Senior Wish, a Memphis-area nonprofit that serves seniors, and WWII veterans in particular. Yesterday, in the event’s 2nd year, more than 100 runners and their families showed up to race in honor of the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country.
The awards given to age group and overall race winners were presented by a group of veterans, some in their full dress uniforms, who were humble, joyful and funny.
They kissed the female winners and vigorously shook hands with the men and boys. They joked about whose ranks were friskier, the Navy’s or the Marines’. They were patient when things weren’t precisely organized and accommodating of everyone who wanted pictures. None of them told war stories or bragged about heroics. None of them begged for accolades.
I came home from the race wondering how to teach my children about this day, about humility, sacrifice and commitment. Bernard and I agreed that they were old enough to watch Saving Private Ryan, which was showing at 7 p.m. I hadn’t actually seen the movie in its entirety since it was in the theaters, but I recalled that it told the story of war and service better than most films and knew its story would make sense to my kids even without extensive history lessons.
I remembered most of the characters and plot. I remembered that it was bloody and poignant. But I had completely forgotten the key moment, when Capt. Miller says his final words to Pvt. Ryan: Earn it.
I wonder if maybe that’s what my uncles and the veterans handing out awards and the countless other men and women who have served really expect from all of us at home. I wonder if, more than special attention on a day remembering their fallen comrades, what they really want is for the rest of us to earn what they and those lost have given on our behalf, every day, all year long. May it be so.