Memorial Day – The loss of strangers.

Please also be sure to take a peek at my earlier post, where I also link to a really wonderful essay about the particular case of young veterans grappling with this nation’s holiday in memory of their fallen brothers and sisters in arms.

Listening to NPR as I stood cooking the holiday meal for my family just now, I heard a Vietnam vet talk about the need to remember the individual lives lost in our wars — not just the numbers, but the people, and what might have been had they not been lost to us. It made me think of the Jewish notion (one I think that we share with Islam) that when we kill one person, it’s as if we’ve killed an entire world.

This reminded me that I had meant to do just that: Remember individuals, by urging you to go to the Washington Post’s Faces of the Fallen, and just click on a face or two. Consider the ages (21 — had Lance. Cpl. Jose L. Maldonado celebrated that milestone with a beer or two? 31 — did Staff Sgt. Mark C. Wells leave behind a spouse and children?), look at their faces, imagine their families. For a moment or two, hold these strangers who died so far from home in your hearts.

Back in 2008, when the United States reached the milestone of 4,000 dead, I wrote something about those from my own state, Illinois, who had fallen in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. A slightly edited version of what I submitted ran, and some time ago, on Veterans Day, I ran the original here on the blog. It seems right and meet that I should run it again today.

In honor of the fallen from my home state — may their memories be for a blessing.

The loss of strangers

As of this writing, 141 servicemen and women from Illinois are confirmed to have died in the course of the Iraq War.

They came from big cities, mall-strewn suburbs, and places I’ve never heard of: Patoka, Gays, Blandinsville, Mahomet. More than 90 of Illinois’s casualties were 25 or younger when they died; thirteen were still teenagers. They were all, every last one of them, strangers to me, but they died in my name.

I don’t know how to truly honor them, any of these people who died so far from home, not the ones from Illinois, nor the 3,859 others. So I find pictures online and look at their faces, at least a few, and try to register the facts. Try to give them that, at least.

I’m pulled in by certain names, the occasional goofy grin, people who seem, somehow, familiar. Navy Petty Officer Regina Clark, 43 when she was killed, originally from Colona, mother of a teenage son; Sean Maher, a Marine from Grayslake, not much older than Clark’s son when he died at 19, two days before he was supposed to go home.

John Olson, 21, from Elk Grove Village, looks as if he’s trying on his father’s hat; Christopher Sisson, 20, might have once hung out at the North Riverside Mall. Illinois’ first casualty, Ryan Anthony Beaupre, was killed on the third day of the war. In his picture, the 30 year old Marine smiles as if on vacation.

Uday Singh. Twenty-one when he died, an Indian national. He enlisted while living with an aunt in Lake Forest, shared a name with one of Saddam Hussein’s despicable sons, and became a US citizen only upon death. Singh was the first Sikh to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and one of his last emails home read: “You guys have fun while I go save the whole world. P.S. Pray for me.”

Pray for me.

I  pray for him and for all the fallen soldiers, for all the living soldiers, for the families, for all of us in this country, for the Iraqis who also mourn their children. I have always opposed this war, but whatever I may think of the people who sent our men and women into Iraq’s unbearable heat, I know that those who went, did so for me. For me and my children, from a belief that it is right to offer your body as a sacrifice for the country you call home – even if it has not yet given you a passport.

I know that for many soldiers, the military offers an escape; for some, it’s the only way to make a living; others are answering family expectations, or social pressure. Many oppose the war; many support it whole-heartedly. Some do bad things; most, I suspect, just try to get through their days in one piece, with one heart.

But in death, I cannot sort them from each other. I cannot call this one my brother, that one my foe; the war they fought has in some way sanctified them, brought them to a place I cannot reach. I can only look into their faces and thank them, look into eyes that can no longer look back, and ask forgiveness.

Advertisements

Housekeeping: Memorial Day, book recommendations, archiving, and adding links.

My dream house.

As I’ve mentioned on the last several Fridays, I’ve been writing a regular book column for the Americans for Peace Now blog. I decided it would be a good idea to create a dedicated archive for those posts, and so I have. Just over there to your right, under “Pages” – Reading the Conflict: An Israel/Palestine Reading List.

I also added the intensely brilliant and often rather funny (if occasionally in a painfully sharp way) Bernard Avishai — professor, speaker, essayist, author of The Hebrew Republic — to my Israel/Palestine blogroll. He doesn’t always focus exclusively on the conflict (today, for instance, he’s got a post up about the Chevy Volt — hence the blog’s tagline, I suppose: “Responses, mainly to rash opinions about Israel and its conflicts”) but he is a very important voice — sane, deeply informed, and passionate — on the topic. And I had no idea he had a blog! Very embarrassing.

And that’s it from me today! I have folks coming over to eat hamburgers and watermelon for the holiday and I have to get a move on (there are fewer potato chips available than there were earlier in the three-day weekend, but I’m sure I don’t know anything about that).

It being Memorial Day, though, I want to leave you with this: “Memorial Day’s New Younger Generation,” a post by Don Gomez, Jr, a spokesman with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), on what Memorial Day means for the veterans of those wars that this country is still waging.

For the quiet few who have shouldered these wars, Memorial Day is no longer an abstract holiday honoring a faceless mass of heroes from a history textbook. It’s a list of names of people you know, reluctantly accumulated and growing ever longer. It’s a reminder of the awkward long-distance phone call to tell a friend that his old squad leader and mentor was killed in an IED blast in Afghanistan. It’s the swirl of emotions felt when informed that a friend was just killed in Iraq, leaving behind a young wife and children. It is the unavoidable sinking feeling, deep in the stomach, of “Why me? Why am I okay?”

Please click through and read the whole thing.