This weekend we gather to lay wreaths and pay homage to the men and women who died in our wars, to create or preserve our way of life. Some are buried in all corners of the world, from Normandy to Okinawa.
They have died for us over a 244-period, from Bunker Hill in 1775 to faraway Afghanistan in 2019, were about 12,000 American troops remained deployed.
For those who don’t realize we are still at war in Afghanistan, here are the names of three Marines killed by a roadside bomb last month: Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, a New York City fireman, a husband and father of three daughters, Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, New York, and Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania.
These are the most recent of the hundreds of thousands of American war dead over the life of the nation. Some died on our own New Jersey soil in places like Freehold, Springfield, Union and Bound Brook in the fight to form the nation. But most died in the horrific slaughter of our 20th Century wars.
26,277 killed at Argonne.
29,204 killed at Normandy.
20,195 killed on Okinawa.
33,686 killed in combat in Korea, a number close to the full population of Montclair.
47,424 killed in Vietnam.
And in this century, as of May 20 of this year, 6,892 service men and women lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The number of wounded, as in all wars, is about 10 times the number of those killed.
There are the men and women with lost or damaged limbs, addled brains and other life-debilitating injuries. It includes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in those who can’t unsee the horrors they saw, or undo thing they’ve done.
We’ve all heard about combat veteran suicides. These are the forgotten men and women who made “the ultimate sacrifice.” Their names are not etched in marble or in relief on bronze plaques. No ceremonial wreaths are laid for them, no public honors given. Their families endure, privately and alone.
All the deaths in war mean incalculable, ongoing loss for families, for grandchildren, nieces and nephews never born. The black hole left in the war dead’s family doesn’t mend with time; it magnifies.
For the families of the injured, there is no black hole. There is a gray area of helplessness and confusion. There person who went off to war is not the person who returned, and there is nothing anybody can do about it except pray for the grace to accept and continue to love the unrecognizable person who came home, and handle them with kindness and patience. They should be remembered on this day also.
As our World War II, Korea and Vietnam generations pass, we should pause today to remember and pray for the widows and siblings of those 750,000 men and women killed in action, who miss them every day as the decades mount.
As our Afghanistan and Iraq veterans move into what should have been the most fruitful years of their lives, we should remember and pray for the families that help them cope with their struggles, families that are bound in their own way to the collateral duty and damage of war.
In May, we go to college graduations, send our kids off to proms, and rise and fall with their spring sports high and lows. We celebrate our teenagers and young adults. Almost none will go to war. Most don’t even think about it.
I’ve taught at Rutgers campuses in Newark and New Brunswick for more than a decade. Not once have I seen a war protest. They have no skin in the game.
There is an unprecedented disconnect between the American public and the men and women who fight our wars. The end of the draft essentially took the greater public out of the conversation about the military adventurism Dwight Eisenhower so presciently warned us about.
There was much discussion in the last election about growing economic disparity in our country, we often hear of the “1 percent” that holds the wealth.
Our military disparity is even greater. Only one-half of one percent of the population serves in the military, and almost all come from military families.
Perhaps that’s why we are a politically-polarized nation. The democratic, national- identity building experience of service to country no longer exists.
And so the military families are increasingly isolated, as are their war-torn loved ones. They alone deal with the aftershocks of war. The depression, the posttraumatic stress disorder, the opiate addiction from war-wound pain killers. The physical loss of limbs, the traumatic brain injury from IED explosions. The survivor guilt from watching comrades die. The moral guilt from doing the killing. The exposure of seeing the human civilian carnage left in war-torn cities.
Memorial Day is a day to not only remember them in our prayers, but find ways to ease their pain. To serve those, who have served us, with same solemnity with which we remember the dead.