Of Memorial Days, and Sons and Daughters

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David Goldman / AP

American flags wave near gravestones as the the sun rises over Georgia National Cemetery Monday, May 28, 2012, in Canton, Ga.

With the holiday upon us, a friend recently asked me how I planned to teach my children about the importance of Memorial Day.  As a former Marine and veteran of two tours to Iraq, the question surprisingly caught me off guard.  I have written extensively about war and its cruel influence on those who waged it, but the concept of passing the difficult lessons I learned in Iraq on to my children has only rarely crossed my mind. It’s not that I want to keep things from my family.

My oldest child is a preschooler, and so until recently my kids have been too young to grasp the concept of patriotism.  My son is only 18 months old and surely too young to understand, but my three-and-a-half year old daughter, a precocious beauty wise beyond her years, has already developed a strong capacity for empathy. She may not yet truly understand the meaning of the flag, or why we place our hand on our heart when we listen to the National Anthem at a ballgame, but somehow she knows that if Daddy cries during ”The Star-Spangled Banner” it’s because he misses his friends.

Without fail, when the anthem invokes an emotional response from me, she asks me to pick her up at the end of the song, and she kisses the tears from my cheek.  Embarrassed, I tell her that the tears are Heaven’s raindrops helping wash away Daddy’s sadness.  Although she’s never at a loss for questions, thankfully my explanation always seems to suffice.

So now that Memorial Day is here, how do I teach my daughter that the holiday is about much more than just barbecues and American music?  About more than fireworks and festivals?

Before I got myself sober, Memorial Day was always a day of drunken mourning; a day to wallow in guilt and anguish for surviving when others did not.  It was a day of morbid reflection, the anticipation of which haunted me for weeks ahead of time.  I was wholly consumed by my twisted thoughts and emotions. I avoided interaction altogether, and generally forced myself to watch war movies because somehow I felt obligated to relive the sense of combat, as if to pay homage to my fallen comrades.

Luckily for my sake, and now my daughter’s, I am sober and able to address the concept of Memorial Day in an entirely different, more productive and rewarding manner.  I advocate on veterans’ issues, and serve as an advisor to Veterans Healing Initiative, a nonprofit that helps veterans access treatment for addiction and PTSD.

For far too long I hijacked Memorial Day and made it about me.  But Memorial Day isn’t about me.  It’s about remembering and honoring those who never made it home.  It is the formal holiday that reminds us that every day is independence day; as the motto goes, the home of the free because of the brave.

So this year I will teach my daughter about Memorial Day by doing, not lamenting.  Perhaps we will plant a flag at the gravesite of a fallen warrior, or perhaps we will attend a parade or a speech.  Perhaps I will invite my close group of friends, all fellow combat veterans, to share the day with my family and me.  Or perhaps I can teach her the words to the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance.

I can honor those who didn’t make it home by embracing their legacy.  I can teach my daughter about patriotism, about loving our country, by showing her my devotion to and respect for those who have gone before us.

May we all be so fortunate as to have the opportunity to pass on what we love about our nation to our children.  May every generation never forget the valiant warriors who sacrificed on their behalf. And for the kids too young to remember the wars, and the significance of the supreme sacrifice they represent for the rest of us, may their parents take the time on this, and every Memorial Day, to explain.