Reflections on Memorial Day


On Memorial Day I cannot help but think of this excerpt from Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow:

“I imagined that soldiers who are killed in war just disappear from the places where they are killed. Their deaths may be remembered by the comrades who saw them die, if the comrades live to remember. Their deaths will not be remembered where they happened. They will not be remembered in the halls of the government. Where do dead soldiers die who are killed in battle? They die at home—in Port William and thousands of other little darkened places, in thousands upon thousands of houses where The News comes, and everything on the tables and shelves is all of a sudden a relic and a reminder forever.”

I am thankful I have not experienced The News coming to my home with a report of someone I love having been killed in a war. My brother James is a Gunnery Sergeant in The United States Marine Corps. He has been in The Marines for nearly fifteen years now. During his first combat tour in Iraq, I was starting my first year of college. Sporadic opportunities to chat online while he was deployed were a gift and a curse. When his absence from yahoo messenger coincided with a battle that made The News, I learned how to search the Department of Defense website for those killed in action, praying I would not find his name.  I thank God I never did.  I am nauseous even remembering those times.  Even more so in anticipating another deployment at the start of the next month.

As it is with The Marines, the men he served with became brothers to him, and our family learned their names as well. We prayed for and worried about them too. If James were sitting next to me while I’m typing, he’d punch my arm and say something funny about how I can’t get rid of him that easy. Then he’d say something beautiful to honor the men and women who have died in service to our country, and about their families whose homes are now filled with relics and reminders forever. We’d just sit for a minute, each remembering.

In the years since first publishing this post (in 2016), I have become increasingly aware of and heartbroken by suicide among military personnel.  A 2019 report from the Department of Defense showed, “The number of suicides jumped from 285 to 325 between 2017 and 2018, according to the 2018 Annual Suicide Report, for a rate of about 22 suicides per 100,000 service members to about 25.”

In the same way Wendell Berry painfully reminds us that every service man or woman who dies dies at home, we are painfully aware that every statistic has a name and story and family.  If you know someone in the military, my guess they know or have served with someone who has died by suicide.

On Saturday (5/23/20) the Warrior Veterans Outreach in Murphy, NC led a 22 Mile Hump to remember all those who have died by suicide.  I am reminded that wars never stay put.  The trauma of war is relentless and dogs those who fight in them, and those demons still cause casualties here on the home front.

There is no easy answer to suicide.  Platitudes and cliches are not helpful.  Judgment and perpetuating stigmas around suicide or suicidal ideation–like, “You should be able to handle it yourself”–are most certainly not helpful.

In remarks at the Naval Station in Norfolk, VA, before the current coronavirus pandemic, Defense Secretary Mark Espers said suicide should be considered a “national epidemic.”  A suicide awareness and prevention seminar I attended years ago suggested the same thing.  The presenter said that in the same way we learned discrete skills to curb the spread of illnesses, we might also learn skills that could help save the life of someone thinking about suicide.

In the first place, she taught that when you notice “red flags,” ask the question.  Something like this: “Sometimes people going through what you’re going through think about suicide.  Have you ever thought about suicide?”  Or “Does it ever get so bad that you think about suicide?”  Then listen.  And, with care, help lead them to safety.

There is no evidence that bringing up suicide–that asking the question–will plant the idea in someone’s mind.  On the contrary, being able to say “suicide” in a sentence might save someone’s life, because, if they are thinking about suicide, they all of the sudden know that someone cares enough to go with them to the darkest place of their soul.  And even if they are not thinking about suicide, now they know they have a friend who they can go to if they ever do.

Of course, a good number to have saved in your phone is the  National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255.  This is a place to turn when you need to lead someone to safe and more skilled care.

When it comes to remembering, Christians are conditioned through worship to have a good memory. We tell the same stories over and over again because our sacred scriptures and our own experience teach us about how forgetful humans can tend to be. Each Sunday when we say the Apostles’ Creed we remember Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. The Apostle Paul says whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26).

We hope we are learning to have a memory that teaches us faith, hope, and love. Faith that is an abiding trust in Jesus who died and also rose from the grave, defeating death. Hope that God will raise us up also and will put the world right again. And love that compels us to serve, forgive, pray, have mercy, and seek justice like Jesus.

We hope we remember Jesus—his life, death, resurrection, and coming again—in a way that helps us live in a reality where love is more powerful than violence. In our sanctuary we have a cross at the front of the room reminding us that the cross, an instrument of death employed by fear, is puny in comparison to God’s great love.

Our memory also serves to fund an imagination of a future where nations do not learn war anymore. This is more than wishful thinking. It is the future we hope for and expect is surely coming. So we practice ways of peace making and gentleness, seeking to live without enemies. We work to find ways to end to the cycle of offering young men and women as sacrifices again and again on the altar of war. Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice is sufficient for ultimate freedom and peace.

That kind of remembering and hope means for me that on Memorial Day, my remembering of the deaths of so many men and women and the empty places left behind because of their deaths hurts all the more. I lament how at times war seems to us to be the only viable option for putting a stop to some evils. Violence that’s supposed end violence. I grieve for parents who have buried their children, and for the spouses and children who’d give anything for one more hug or bedtime story. My heart aches for the service men and women who have carried their friends off the battlefield and laid them to rest in a grave, a flag draped over their casket then folded with reverence and care and presented to their family.

The flag out front makes me grateful for this country I call home. Seeing it, I’m struck by the incredible bravery and love of country that compels my brother and so many like him to enlist in a service that can and does send them off to war. They teach me about honor, discipline, fidelity, and selflessness.

I am moved by all the tributes—personal and national—that memorialize and honor those who died in service. Headstones marked with flags or flowers. Profile pictures changed to photos of family members or friends in uniform. Poems and stories. Each of these is a marker both of gratitude for a person’s life and sadness at their death. Sadness is its own kind of love. It says, “Your life mattered to me, and I miss you terribly.” Tears, knots in our stomachs, and lumps in our throats are reminders that this is not how it’s supposed to be.

I hope Memorial Day can be the kind of day where our memory teaches us to grieve over the deaths of our brothers and sisters; to care for their families; and to cultivate an imagination that sees and works toward a future where war is no more.

The prophet Isaiah has taught me how to hope and imagine, how to pray and work, so I’ll close with this word:

In days to come

the mountain of the Lord’s house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

and shall be raised above the hills;

all the nations shall stream to it.

     Many peoples shall come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways

and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

-Isaiah 2:2-4, NRSV