Flags Of Our Fathers

Walking to work on Friday morning, I passed a man standing quietly at the corner of Post and Market, calm and collected amidst the throngs of people passing him by. He was close to 80, I'd say---mid-70s, perhaps, but certainly no younger---and he was wearing a soldier's uniform. I don't know if there's anything more poignant in this world than an old man in a soldier's uniform, but if there is, I haven't seen it yet. Sometimes I think the moment when two men lean their heads together on stage to sing into the same microphone is poignant, but then I see an old man in an army uniform standing in the morning rush hour crowds of the San Francisco financial district, his stiff white hat perched atop his head, and I realize I've been wrong all those times before.

I smiled at the man as people with wet hair and briefcases milled around him, everyone rushing somewhere, everyone sipping a latte, everyone going somewhere important. In one hand he held a white tin with the logo of a Veterans' charity on it; in the other, his fingers clasped a bouquet of five or six wilting paper poppies with safety pins on the back. In England, we wear poppies during the week leading up to Remembrance Day on November 11; they represent the blood-red blooms that sprung up across the gory battlefields of Flanders after the First World War, and all the bodies---forgotten and unforgotten---that lie beneath. But to see an American proffering poppies was an anomaly; I'd never heard of Americans wearing poppies for remembrance before.

At first I walked past the man, tossing him another smile to add to the collection of smiles other people had tossed him. And then I realized that I couldn't stand knowing, for the rest of the day, that I'd walked past this tall, proud soldier without stopping. I'd get to work and eat my bagel and he'd still be standing on the corner. I'd check a few things off my to-do list and make a few phone calls and he'd still be standing on the corner. His legs were probably killing him, I thought. How long was he planning to stand there, hoping someone bought a poppy, waiting for someone to notice? I took my earphones out of my ears, turned off my iPod, and reached for my wallet, realizing almost simultaneously that I didn't actually have any cash. Frantically, I emptied my stash of coins from my change purse---quarters for the gym locker, the laundy, the parking meter; my life is measured into times I need quarters and times I don't---and walked towards him. "I'm so sorry," I said, sheepishly. "It's all I've got. It's just change."

And this man, this soldier, he looked up and he beamed at me. He beamed. "Well, that's just what I need!" he said, holding the tin steady as I tried to stuff my coins in, maneuvering them around the crumpled bills. He sounded like anyone's grandfather, like anyone's father. It embarrassed me how grateful he sounded, how pitiful my contribution was. Who knew what this man had done, whether he'd lived in trenches, flown airplanes, missed his wife, watched his friends die, and what was I doing? I was going to work to eat a bagel and check a few things off my to-do list. "I'm really sorry," I said, again, and turned to go. "Oh, your poppy!" he said, unpinning one of the paper buds with a shaking hand and passing it carefully to me.

I wish I could tell you I said something more than thank you. I wish I could tell you I said something pertinent and poignant and appropriate, or even that I said "how are your feet feeling? You must have been standing for a long time." But all I said was thank you. And then I wore that poppy pinned to my shirt all day.

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I've long been fascinated by war, and the people who experience it. When I was younger, it was the Second World War I was interested in, and then I moved to America and I became intrigued with Vietnam. When I was in Vietnam last summer, of course, I couldn't stop talking to people about it, asking them what they remembered, where they were when it happened. One of our tour guides told us as we floated down the Mekong River that he'd been a member of the Viet Cong. "Did you kill anyone?" I gasped. Sean elbowed me sharply in the ribs. But I couldn't help it; it was history, alive and kicking, brought to life right in front of me, and I needed to ask questions---and maybe people wanted to answer them. "At first, Krebs did not want to talk about the war at all," wrote Hemingway in "Soldier's Home." "Later, he felt the need to talk but no-one wanted to hear about it. His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities. Krebs found that to be listened to at all, he had to lie."

Our old neighbor in Charleston, a helicopter pilot who made three tours of duty in Vietnam, used to sit out every night on the porch in front of our house. Sometimes we'd see him at two or three in the morning as we strolled home from the bars. He couldn't sleep, he said, he'd never been able to sleep more than an hour or two at a time, not since he got back from Vietnam in '69. He sat outside at night instead. Doing what? we asked. Thinking, he said. We sent him a postcard from Saigon, making sure to choose something innocuous, something pretty. He sent us back an email: "thanks for the memories."

**************************************************************

Over the weekend, we went to the San Francisco National Cemetery, quite by accident, really. We were driving around, trying to find something worthy of exploring, and there they were, rows and rows and rows of white headstones, each with a small American flag propped up in front in anticipation of Memorial Day. It made me sad that someone had propped all those flags up in front of all those graves. "They probably had teams doing it," said Sean. But that made me even sadder.

We drove silently through the cemetery, passing only one other car, an old couple inside. We were near the freeway, but you couldn't tell. It was a still sort of quiet, a restfulness. I made Sean pull over because one of the flags had been blown down in the wind, but as soon as I straightened it, I saw another had been struck. I straightened that one, and then suddenly I saw them everywhere, a crooked flag here, a bent one there, one that had been completely uprooted from the ground. I ran between the graves, kneeling at each one, straightening each flag, making sure to read the name on each gravestone before I left it, repeating it in my head before moving onto the next one. Nobody, I thought, should have their flag down.

I hope against hope that all your men and boys are safe, all your brothers and cousins and husbands and boyfriends and friends. I hope you hug them a little harder, smile at them a little longer, love them a little more fiercely, just for the fact that they're here.

And if you know someone who was in a war---the Second World War, Vietnam, the one going on now---I'd love nothing more than to hear something about them, either by e-mail or in the comments below. Perhaps your granddad stormed the beaches of Normandy, perhaps your dad ran through the jungle in Da Nang, perhaps your brother (or your sister) is driving tanks in Iraq. People have stories up their sleeves and they don't even realize how fascinating they are to other people. But that's just how it seems to go, though, isn't it? The best ones are always true.

1
adele
May 29, 2007

Holly, thank you for saying 'thank you' to the old soldier, for straightening the flags and for writing this.

Eloquence is action.

2
sgazzetti
May 29, 2007

After we returned from Kuwait my battalion came up for funeral detail. Anyone who has served is entitled to military honors when they die, a 21-gun salute and a flag solemnly folded into a taut triangle. Our uniforms were immaculate. They had to be. For six baking hot weeks we wore those uniforms on old school buses jouncing down Georgia red-clay back roads to broken-down AME churches hidden in the pine barrens so that we could fire our rifles' blanks into the air before putting an old sharecropper into the ground.

We never learned any of their stories. There wasn't time. We always had another funeral to get to.

3
laurenkie
May 29, 2007

Thank you for this post; I really enjoyed reading it. :)

4
LyndaL
May 29, 2007

Thanks, Holly - a wonderfully thoughtful and poignant post. I don't really have many stories to tell. My great-uncle (now dead) served in Burma in the second world war. He told how he was in a foxhole and decided to risk popping his head up to have a look around. As he did so, an enemy soldier did the exact same thing not forty feet away. My uncle considered shooting - he should have tried to shoot him - but he and the other soldier made eye contact, held it for a few seconds, and then both dropped back down again, neither of them shooting. My uncle always said he hoped that guy survived the war too.

5
AT
May 29, 2007

My grandfather was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for service in the South Pacific in WWII. He was a well beloved Major, and kept in close touch with his men for many, many years. Until his death really. He flew incredibly dangerous missions and his stories were truly terrifying.

One sad fact is that at that time, the Air Force was experimenting with a new malaria drug. They experimented right on the men. By the time the Air Force figure out it caused sterility, it was too late. My mother had already been born and was consequently the only child born to any man in that unit.

My grandfather was always very proud of the fact that he could wear his uniform all his life. He kept himself fit and looked as handsome in it at 80 as he did at 30.

He was a man of unparalleled generosity, kindness and humor. He was devoted to family and those less fortunate. He was the sun our family orbited around until his death 8 years ago.

Thanks for your post. It was beautiful.

6
Tan
May 29, 2007

My Pa worked in the communications post, sending/translating morse code etc in the time of the Pacific War when Darwin, Australia was attacked.

"On 19 February 1942 at 0957, during the Pacific War, 183 Japanese warplanes attacked Darwin in two waves. It was the same fleet that had bombed Pearl Harbor, though a considerably larger number of bombs were dropped on Darwin, than on Pearl Harbor. The attack killed at least 243 people and caused immense damage to the town. These were by far the most serious attacks on Australia in time of war, in terms of fatalities and damage. They were the first of many raids on Darwin."

I showed him Google Earth just recently (he still thinks computers are some kind of fancy TV) and the first place he wanted me to go find was where he was stationed during the war. His eyes lit up and he was completely blown away at the idea that he was looking at detailed aerial shots all these years later...it was great :)

Loved your post. You've inspired me to ask him more about it...

7
Sara
May 29, 2007

What a wonderful post, Holly. My father-in-lay (deceased) was in WWII and came into Normandy at Dday +3. My husband had a chance a few years ago to visit some of the places he'd heard his dad talk about, St. Lo, St. Mere Eglise, and some other spots, plus the memorial on the beaches there and was amazed. His dad didn't talk a lot about his experiences, but my husband did say that you never shook his dad to wake him up, you woke him from a distance by saying his name because he would wake up swinging. I do take the opportunity to say "thanks" to vets (of any war) and am always astonished by their astonishment at being thanked.

8
Spinoff
May 29, 2007

My grandmother signed to give permission for my underaged father to join the Navy, and watched her 17- and 18-year-old sons board the same train together to go off to World War II. Before the war was finished, all four of her sons were veterans. Extraordinarily, they all came home unwounded. It must have been agonizing for Grandma, who had married my grandfather before World War II, and essentially supported him for the rest of his life after he was disabled by mustard gas and trauma. As I watch my own four boys, I pray I will never have to be this brave for them. I don't think I could.

9
Diane
May 29, 2007

My dad came to Canada from England when he was 14 - sent here by his parents so that he might survive the bombings. When he was 18, he joined the Canadian Navy, after he had my grandmother write a letter asking for permission for her son to join the Navy instead of being sent to the front lines. He served in the navy, in the Pacific region, from the end of 1943 until 1945 when he received his Canadian citizenship.

He came back to live in the small town where he was sent and 2 years later met my mom. Six months after they met, they were married and began their family. Every Remembrance Day I wear a poppy for him and all those who sacrificed. I wear it with honour because every time I go home, I can hug my dad and say thanks!

Great post Holly - must go call my Dad now!

10
Bethany
May 29, 2007

This was a really beautiful entry. My grandfather was a marksman in the Marines, and served briefly in Korea. We buy poppies every year to remember him.

11
DM
May 29, 2007

This was completely beautiful, Holly. Thank you.

12
KN
May 29, 2007

My friend B returned last fall from Guard duty in Iraq. At first, his unit was sweeping for roadside bombs, but eventually became the guards for Saddam and Barzan and co while they were on trial. I asked him if it was weird for him when they were executed, and he said it was – they were crazy dictators, personally responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, but they were also funny guys who joked around with their captors, including B. He told me that Saddam requested a chocolate chip muffin each morning, heated in the microwave for 15 seconds. That always struck me as just the weirdest thing to know about Saddam Hussein. Another time B bet Barzan that he couldn’t get kicked out of the courtroom in under five minutes. Barzan replied ‘watch me’, and proceeded to do just that.

I met B when we worked together on a 2004 campaign (a Democratic one, no less). B couldn’t find a job after the election, and was drawn to the big bonuses the Guard was offering. It was good money and a chance to serve his country…the fact that he harbored some doubts about the war itself didn’t seem that important. Now that he’s been over there, I asked if he thinks we’re winning the war, or that it’s even winnable. He says we’re not winning, that none of the soldiers think we’re winning, that straightening out Iraq will take fifty years or more. With all that said, you’d think that of course he wouldn’t volunteer to go back. But he might. He’s switched units since he returned home, but will switch back if his former unit gets reactivated. He says he couldn’t live with himself if his friends go back while he stays home - even for a war he no longer believes in. I can’t understand this at all, have told him I don’t understand it. But I guess that’s what separates soldiers from civilians.

Thanks so much for your post, and for making a soldier’s day.

13
Ariana
May 29, 2007

This post gave me goosebumps. My grandfather was in the US Air Force. He died when I was 7 and I never got a chance to ask him about his experiences.

14
Schnozz
May 29, 2007

My husband spent our second wedding anniversary (2004) crouched outside the borders of Fallujah as all of the bombs came down. It was hard for me to believe that people still GO to war---like I think my generation should be exempt from it, or something--but having him gone cured me of that pretty quickly. He's been blown out of his bunk by mortars and shot at countless times. (He claims that he was already used to the sound of bullets whizzing by when he got there, thanks to video games.)

You're right that the war stories are fascinating---I love listening to the men from his unit talk about it. Once, a mortar landed on the ground right at the feet of four or five guys, and simply didn't go off. I still think about that---how my biggest worry is whether I have to work a little late tonight, and they were watching bombs land at their feet and feeling grateful just to be alive. Three of the men in his unit are dead; one has been shot five times; and one was just on Oprah because he was so horribly burned in a suicide bombing. And, um, I throw fits when my hair doesn't go right.

As my husband once wrote me, "Needless to say, it was an experience I was glad I got to be a part of, but I certainly don't want to make it a habit." No kidding.

Thanks for this post.

15
melanie_in_utah
May 29, 2007

My grandfather was a mechanic for the Air Force in the second world war and served in the Pacific. He and his pilot flew some of the Japanese dignitaries to the USS Missouri for the official surrender after the war with Japan ended. He brought home a samurai sword at the end of his tour and when I was younger, would threaten to cut my feet off with the sword if I didn't stop wearing sandals in the winter. In February 2006 he died of brain cancer at the age of 85, but up until a couple of months before his death he still ran errands for my ill grandmother, mowed his own lawn and fixed whatever needed fixing (he could fix anything). I miss him so much and due to my own inability to deal with his decline and imminent death, I never said goodbye.

Thank you, Holly, for remembering.

16
Willow
May 29, 2007

I stumbled onto your blog through another my friend keeps. I check back quite often to read your wonderful stories.
This one made me cry.
I have been blessed not to be directly impacted by any war. My dad was active duty in the US Navy during Vietman but never saw any action. He remained aboard a variety of Naval ships while others ran through fields and gave their lives. The "lucky" ones who survived the terrors of war returned to a country where they were not only not appreciated for their sacrifice but were hated for what they had done.
In my humble opinion, there is no "good" war. I dont understand war. It both fascinates and horrifies me.
I try to think of war as something happening in another country to people I dont know. I live my quiet little life safely tucked away from the atrocities of a war halfway around the world and I try to forget that real people with real families are sacrificing.
This, I can not and should not do.
These men and women throughout history have left their homes, families and lives behind and have gone to fight wars they did not agree with, at the very least, did not understand.
We should not forget these people have stories. These stories should be shared.
Thank you for helping me to remember. Tears streamed down my face as I recounted my blessings and thought of those who sacrificed.

17
Ursula
May 29, 2007

My grandfather survived the Bataan Death March and subsequent internment in a prison camp. One of the reasons the enemy soldiers didn't kill him during the march was because he was picked to carry a wounded Japanese general based on how strong his legs looked.

I can't imagine having to carry your enemy in order to save your own life.

18
heidikins
May 29, 2007

Thank you for this post, the tears were the good kind.

My grandfather was a Marine and taught marksmanship in Virginia during WWII. He was the only member of his battalion who wasn't sent to Europe, and sadly he was the only one who survived the war. I have never heard any of the stories, he died when I was young and my grandmother never talked about it. But I will always remember the 21-gun salute at his funeral, it was one of the most moving moments of my very young life.

19
Angela
May 29, 2007

Thank you for this post. I always wonder, when I see the elderly people selling poppies, whether people here in the States really know what they signify, and whether people from this generation will step up to sell them once the old people are gone.

My dad's father was a naval architect in England during WWII; he met my grandmother because he was a boarder at her father's house. At one point during the Blitz her house was bombed while he was at work; there is a very dramatic story of Grandad running through the streets trying to find her (she was in a shelter and was fine). My mom's father married my grandmother, promptly enlisted in the Canadian air force, and was sent to Iceland, of all places. It turned out he was colorblind and thus couldn't fly, so he was on ground staff, much to my grandmother's relief. They got so bored in Iceland that they used to go throw bars of soap into geysers to make them erupt. While he was away he and my grandmother sent photos of themselves back and forth; my grandmother still has a big box of these, with little love notes on the back of every single one.

20
Nothing But Bonfires
May 29, 2007

Note to self: don't read these comments at work, where sniffles and tears incite funny looks.

Thank you all so much for sharing these fascinating stories, these fascinating people.

21
Audrey
May 29, 2007

What a beautiful post.

My grandfather was a paratrooper in World War II. I think he was at Normandy, but I'm not positive. I do know he was awarded a purple heart. Having just recently watched "Band of Brothers" followed by reading this post, I have made a note to ask my grandmother to tell me more about my grandpa (he made it home from the War, but died long before I was born -- i sometimes wonder if it was the war that led to the alchoholism that eventually took his life).

Thank you for writing this.

22
Lissa
May 29, 2007

Your post left tears in my eyes. One of my good friends is leaving for his third tour in about a month. He was engaged after his first and then got married after his second, and they thought he was done only to find out three months later after their wedding that he has to go back. I can't imagine what his wife must be feeling because I am so scared for him.

I think we get caught up in our day to day life and we don't realize all that is going on around us and what our troops are going through. Thank you for reminding us.

23
Alva
May 29, 2007

Thanks for this post. In my family, we were raised to stand and sing along with the Star Spangled Banner, say the Pledge of Allegiance, and go to patriotic events such as Air Shows on holidays like Memorial Day and Veteran's Day. My patriotic heritage has stayed with me. I still hang out my American flag on my house and buy poppies from the veterans as these holidays are about more than a 3-day weekend and cookout for me.

My dad, who was orphaned when he was 12, quit high school and joined the Navy at 17; he served in the Korean conflict traveling and seeing a world so very different from the small Texas town he grew up in. He was very proud of his military service and would show us photos and tells us stories. He got so many tatttoes while he was in the Navy. My brother was in the Air Force for a number of years; he was never called to active duty, but we were all together the day we heard President Reagan had been shot. That was a very eery day until we learned the identity of the shooter and realized our country was not under attack.

My Mom's family had many serve in the military. She is one of 10 kids and they were a farm family. Three of her older brothers served in WWII; her brother B.W. was exempt from serving because he was the 'last boy' at home and needed by the family to work the farm. But, he was compelled to join and serve. He had a bad ear and was rejected by 3 branches of the military; the Navy accepted him. Now, my grandparents had all four sons far from home fighting a war. Somewhere in the Philippines, my uncle B.W. died; they never recovered his body. That alone made his loss so much more difficult for my grandparents. In my Grandmother's last years, she was moved to a nursing home; she left behind so many of her things. But she had this purse she kept with her. When she died, we learned of the contents she held so close to her heart... the letters her sons wrote her from war. In that day, a soldier wrote a letter and a photograph of the letter was sent. If a soldier communicated something unacceptable (i.e. anything that might give confidential info such as location, etc.) it would be blacked out with a marker. It was surreal reading these letters written so many decades earlier. They were upbeat. Then, came the letter from the military officials informing my grandparents that my uncle was M.I.A. Then, the 'we regret to inform you' letter where they confirmed he had died. Then, letters from my other uncles who had learned the news and were researching to see if they could find out any other information through their military connections. And the letter from a fellow soldier friend of B.W. who wrote the family about what a great guy he was. The contents of Grandmother's purse she kept so close to her at the nursing home showed that even though three decades had passed since her son had died, her grief had not subsided.

A friend of mine from high school is currently in Iraq; he is a nurse and tells stories about the wounded that come in. He has two small daughters back here at home and the hardest patients he treats are the Iraqi children. A former boyfriend was an Army Captain in Desert Storm; his brother a marine also served. Their older brother is a Colonel who recently returned from Iraq.

In Dallas, a group of veterans gather at the DFW terminal each week to greet soldiers returning home for a brief respite and are also there to send off the soldiers returning to Iraq.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtTvmaSVElY

How can we not be touched by the horrors of war?! To be inspired by the bravery of those who defend freedom and human rights at the expense of the nightmares that will haunt them when they come home--and for some, even their very lives? Somehow, 'thank you' feels so inadequate at times like this. But how do you bundle all that you think and feel and want to communicate to a solider. I think it possible that elder Veteran, standing at the corner of Post and Market, understood your smile and your 'thank you' more than you may have realized. Surely his heart understood all the things left unsaid.

24
notsoccer mom
May 29, 2007

my dad was in the US Navy, WWII, on an aircraft carrier in the pacific ocean. one night he and all his buddies were playing cards below deck. losing, my dad called it quits and headed up on deck. only minutes later a plane with an (accidentally) unexploded bomb landed on the carrier--directly above the card game.

the bomb went off and killed all my dad's friends. he wasn't able to grieve until about ten years ago.

25
Andrea
May 29, 2007

This was a beautiful and eloquent post. My uncle Bob, one of my favorite relatives, served in WWII, the Korea Conflict, and Vietnam. Ultimately, he retired as a Colonel from the United States Army. Occasionally, he would wear his uniform for special events such as his son's graduation. I always remember such a transformation in him, how I felt proud to have him as my uncle, and also wondered what horrors he must have witnessed.

26
Teej
May 29, 2007

I am extremely opposed to war, under almost any circumstances. (Almost.) So it's hard for me to reconcile the pride I feel when I think of my grandfather's bravery in WWII and the horror I feel at the fact that it happened at all.

He was a B-17 tail gunner. He won medals for shooting down Messerschmitts. His crew flew many more missions than most B-17 crews. They were only children.

On the other side were more children. All of these children, zooming around the sky in their bulky metal machines, were sent to kill each other. They were kids sent to carry the ills of the world on their shoulders, asked to keep their sanity in the midst of madness. Asked to give up their innocence and optimism and all of the beautiful things that we want for children.

My dad tells me it was five years post-war before his father could sleep through a night without suddenly bolting from sleep in a cold sweat. When my dad was 5 years old, my grandmother asked him -- her new little man of the house -- whether my dad would go with her if she decided to leave. He doesn't remember giving any answer at all. She never left.

My grandfather did the best he could do, and that's what I'm proud of and thankful for. But I hope that we can someday live in a world where heroics aren't measured on the battlefield or in the sky in the number of planes shot down or in the swiftness of casualties. Is it a futile hope? Maybe. But I'm an optimist because of him--and I'm also thankful for that.

27
Becca
May 29, 2007

What a wonderful post. Thank you so much.

My granddad was in the Army, then the Army Air Corps, then the Air Force. He served in WWII, flying supply and repair missions in China and India, I believe. Like you, I love hearing his stories. I will be visiting him around July 4, and I will be sure to ask him about them again. This time I'll take notes, and then I'll come report back to you.

28
Meg
May 29, 2007

Holly, that was gorgeous. Your description of the soldier sounded just like my granddad, but he was unable to serve because of colourblindness.

That was one of his big regrets in life. He was so proud of the men in his generation who made that sacrifice.

I know he would have loved that post. It occurred to me for a split second to print it out for him, even, but he passed on Friday.

So double on the work sniffles.

Thanks for being one of my favourite writers anywhere.

29
Melissa
May 29, 2007

Obviously your one simple post turned into a compilation of many stories of veterans from the many wars.

When I first read your post. I enjoyed it and was grateful that you did stop for that older man. And then I just went ahead blog-hopping somewhere else.

I stopped, realized it was the same sort of internal dialogue as you had about the bagel, the to-do list, and came back. I saw you had so many comments, and decided most would be about thanking you, and also people offering stories about their parents, grandparents, etc.

I'm glad I stopped to read them because so easily could you just pass them by. And kudos on the beautiful pics in the blog. And such a shame the cemetary was so empty.

30
Tracy27
May 29, 2007

That was really beautiful, Holly. Those old men get me every time, too.

My mom tended bar at a VFW for 20 years, and every year the veterans sold those poppies - they're an icon from my childhood. My brother was in Army Special Ops (Panama, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan... His was the deluxe tour package), but thankfully retired in one piece a couple of years ago.

Last September I spent two weeks touring WWII battle sites with two of the men from Easy Company, 101st Airborne (profiled in "Band Of Brothers") - Babe Heffron and Bill Guarnere. From Normandy through Belgium to the Netherlands and into Germany, we followed these guys to the places they fought. Every day they hung out and told us stories, and every night, they drank us under the table (and the stories got bluer). When we got off the bus at Bastogne, Bill joked that he'd give $5K to whoever found the leg he lost there during the Battle of the Bulge. Dude still has balls of steel - they both do. They never bitched about the discomfort of travel. Always they reminded us to think about the guys who didn't make it back, because their lost friends were sure as hell on their minds when they set eyes on the fields and towns and cemeteries. I love those two old men, and I'll never forget their stories. Here's a picture of them (along with a third vet on our tour).

A couple of years ago, I sat up late one night talking to a friend, a civilian engineer Reservist who spent a year leading combat missions in Iraq. He'd been injured in a Humvee attack, and most nights his dreams took him back to hanging upside-down, his buddies shot, his shoulder badly injured, gas dripping onto him as bullets pinged against the chassis. His shoulder will never be the same, and neither will his psyche. His little boys were lucky to get him back, but they lost a good part of their dad back in the sand, too. I wish that, 60 years from now, he could look back with the same pride and acceptance of loss that live in Bill and Babe. Sadly, I wonder if that'll be true. His service and sacrifice were the same, though, and he's to be saluted just like the ones who came before him.

Here's to our veterans, both old and young, and to the ones who never got a homecoming. Thanks for this entry.

31
Tracy27
May 29, 2007

The other thing I meant to say is that, in my experience, what a lot of these vets want most from us is to be heard - to have us listen to their stories without judgment and with appreciation for what they saw and endured. Any time a vet is willing to tell you his/her war tales, please listen.

32
Patrick
May 29, 2007

Well *that* made me cry.

One of my first memories, ever, is watching my Uncle Danny getting off the plane from Vietnam, getting down on his knees and kissing the ground.

I just can't even imagine.

33
Thespian Libby
May 29, 2007

"In Flanders fields, the poppies blow...." You have an ancient soul, dearest Holly Burns. From now on, whenever I get weepy wondering who will remember the significance of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, I shall remember that you do, and your children will, and so on... Thank you.

34
liz
May 30, 2007

beautifully written, holly.
no one in my family has ever served in any branch of armed service, but i remember a surprising comment my dad made years ago...he said that he was sorry that he never got to serve in vietnam. coming from a poor, uneducated family, graduating high school in the early 1960s, it was almost expected that he would join the service. with an unexpected twist of fate, however, he was awarded a college scholarship, and later offered a job with a company providing camera and surveillance equipment for the war, and thus not called up in the draft. having only heard horror stories about that war, it was a shock to hear my father's remorse that he was not there along side many of his friends and classmates, but through our conversation i came to understand that vietnam was really *the* defining event for men of his generation. his peers got to experience the event first hand and he could only watch from the sidelines. i can't imagine feeling "sorry" to miss out on such a nightmare, but i am really glad that he did.

35
Horrible Warning
May 30, 2007

I had to stop reading the comments. They are making me all weepy.

Both of my grandfathers were in wars. My mother's father was in a concentration camp at the end of WW II (I wish I knew which one...it was something we didn't talk much about because no one dealt well with it), and years later that experience contributed to his death. His neck had deteriorated so that he had to wear a metal halo near the end because they used to hit him on the back of the neck with the butt of a gun.

My dad's father was killed in Korea when my dad was 18 months old. I asked my grandmother about it when her second husband was dying, and she was halfway through the story when she stopped herself because even though he was in a coma, my step-grandfather wouldn't approve. It turns out that it wasn't the Koreans but the Chinese that surrounded my grandfather's tank and blew it up (they were out of ammo). Even though it wasn't the Koreans, my dad still won't buy one of their cars just the same.

36
sjb
May 30, 2007

This made me cry too. Thank you for caring.
My paternal grandfather was from just outside of Cambridge, England and he joined the RAF during WWII and was sent to Canada to learn to fly Spitfires. He was shot down and killed over north Africa a few months after my father was born. During the war my maternal grandfather was a mechanic who worked on Spitfires, also in Cambridge.

37
Kate
May 30, 2007

My Grandfather flew divebombers in WWII. He was in the Phillipeans preparing to invade Japan when they dropped the bombs. He still wears his Navy hat to this day.

My older brother is in Iraq (Army) and has been there for almost a year, he won't come home until November. He spent his first wedding anniversary sleeping on the hood of his humvee "defending" New Orleans from the looters after Hurricane Katrina. He spent his second in Iraq, and now he'll spend his third there as well. He used to own a club in Chicago, get his nails done, and wear a man-bag (metrosexual to a "T"). Now he dodges car bombs and shakes the sand out of his oakley combat boots.

My little brother is learning Farsi in the Army. He will likely spend the next 20 years in/around Iran.

I got out of the AF a few months ago after a bad car wreck. I cried thinking about how I'd be unable to serve my country alongside my brothers. Now I work for a defense contractor and I am here for them still.

38
Kate
May 30, 2007

Sorry about the misspelling of Philippines, yeesh. I can't even blame that one on the tears.

39
LaughingMouse
May 30, 2007

My brain says this doesn't apply, that this isn't what you're looking for. But, my heart disagrees. So, I share. My father was scheduled to go to Vietnam. Not sure of the year, probably '71-'72ish. However, for some reason unbeknownst to him or the rest of us, his orders were changed at the last moment and he was sent to Berlin, Germany to be an MP on the stockade. I have wondered from time to time how my life would be different or if it would even exist if he had gone to Vietnam instead of Germany. I am always so deeply grateful that his orders were changed at the last moment.

Thank you, so much, for casting all of this in a less than negative light. I get so tired of reading rants and raves and slams and anger and bitterness. I will never look at a "grandpa" in uniform the same again. Maybe I will even be able to talk to him like you wished you could have.

40
gina in sc
May 30, 2007

that picture... wow... it is BREATHTAKING. says it all

41
Melanie
May 30, 2007

Holly, that was so intensely beautiful.

42
flybunny
May 30, 2007

This was absolutely beautiful (esp since accompanied by the beautiful pictures). I am going to share this with my FIL who served in Vietnam. For the longest time I never heard any of the stories until he started giving talks about his experiences at an air museum and they were taped and he gave us copies - his stories are fascinating but the one that hits the closest to home is this one...

My FIL brought home the diamond that is in my engagement ring from Vietnam for my MIL. It replaced the diamond that was in her engagement ring. It is small but almost perfect and when my hubby told his parents that I was the one, my MIL insisted that I have the diamond. A couple of years later when we visited "The Wall" in Washington DC my ring became warm and it vibrated very slightly. It was surreal.

43
Lisa
May 30, 2007

Holly-
A very well written post. As I was going through all the blogs I read daily, I have to say I was really disappointed in how few people make any note of Memorial Day (your's and one other were the only ones that said 'thanks'.) To most people Memorial Day is just an extra day off of work. So thank you for taking the time to write this, and hopefully you inspired others to stop and think for a moment.

My husband and I both worked in the corporate world until after Sept. 11. It was after that that my husband started bringing up the idea of joining the Marine Corps. We gave up a good six figure income and beautiful house in order to serve a greater purpose than ourselves. My husband was commissioned in 2004 and we currently are living overseas (Japan). We both contend that joining the Marine Corps was one of the best decisions we ever made, but it has come with a lot of heartache.

We lost a very good friend a little over a year ago when his Humvee was hit by an IED. I've watched several friends have to have their babies while their husbands are away. I see mom's struggling to be single parents while their husbands are in harms way. Kids that dont fully understand what is going on, but realize that Daddy is gone. When I was pregnant in 2005 I went to Bethesda Naval Hospital for all my appointments. As I walked through the hallways I would get goosbumps looking at all these young men that no longer had legs or arms or had all sorts of disfiguring scars-their lives forever changed. And I would think about what an *honor* it was to even hold the door open for these people. These heroes. I dont think most American's can even begin to comprehend the sacrifices that our military and their families make *every single day*. I am humbled by this lifestyle.

I get goosebumps every time I hear the national anthem. I proudly fly a flag outside our door. If I ever see someone one in uniform at the airport I always offer to buy them a drink/meal and thank them for serving. I hear amazing heroic stories from people that consider themselves 'ordinary' when they are anything but. I am so humbled and so proud to be part of the military family. I know it is a sense of pride that most Americans will never experience.

I think what most people in the Armed Forces appreciate is sincere actions or words. Your "thank you" to the man on the street and the fact that you wore the flower all day long. Your taking the time to go and fix the flags and say the name on each gravestone- it brings tears to my eyes. Your sincere acts of thanks means a lot to this military family- I only wish there were more people like you.

44
Gloria
May 30, 2007

Simply beautiful, Holly. My dad was an Army Chaplain and served in Korea. He died in December and this was my first Memorial Day without him. We had full military honors at his funeral and they presented me with the flag from his coffin. I miss him very much. No words can describe how much your post meant to me today.

45
Sandra D
May 30, 2007

My dad was just an 18-year-old farm boy from Oklahoma when he served with the Eighth Air Force in 1945, stationed at Snetterton Heath in Kent, England. He was a ball-turret gunner on a B-17 bomber and flew 15 missions over France and Germany before the war ended, then spent the remainder of his enlistment on the ground in Occupied Germany.

He never talked about his service to anyone, ever, if even asked. I really had no idea what he did exactly until after he died in 1998. Then I suddenly wanted to know everything I could, so I got online and read whatever I could find about B-17 bomber crews, including personal remembrances of others who served, and I was completely blown away.

I wish I had known all that before he died, so I could tell him how proud I was of him.

46
Alice
May 30, 2007

I don't actually come from a military family, but this post touched me nevertheless -- really thoughtful and touching. My father was enlisted in the Navy when he was pretty young, not yet engaged to my mother... They married a few years after his service overseas in Europe, but in our case he was never exposed to war. I know I am very lucky and blessed that this was the case, but I am also aware of the fact that we are still surrounded by war somewhere in the world, even today, and that people are losing their lives daily in sacrifice for their country. I, too, have a hard time accepting this and comprehending it all, and I know I have a bad habit of living in my own bubble, but war stories still affect me, just like you said Holly.

47
Sharon
May 30, 2007

Beautiful, beatiful post- brought me to tears.

Both of my Grandfathers are WWII veterans. My Grandfather on my Mother's side was at Pearl Harbor, actually. The pictures he has standing with fellow survivors in front of blown out buildings and heaps of distorted metal...well, it simple takes your breath away.

I sing at a Memorial Day ceremony every year and this year the Chaplain from the American Legion, much like the man you describe, talked about how much joy it brings him when young people buy his poppies and say Thank You - just thought you might like to know that, if you are concerned about not having anything more poetic to say.

I think that Thank You was perfectly appropriate and I am sure that he doesn't hear it enough.

48
kathy
May 30, 2007

Well I came upon your site by accident this morning and I am so glad I did. What a beautiful moving entry.

My Grandfather was a SeaBee. I am not sure what kind of service he did though, whether he was actually in combat or not. He talks about it a lot and I love hearing it.

My Uncle Gene (his brother) was a Marine in Vietnam. He ended up doing over 3 tours there. I remember my sixteenth birthday. It was his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. One of the most beautiful things I have seen to this day.

49
A'Dell
May 31, 2007

As many have already said - what a beautiful post.

My father led many Marines in Desert Storm and my grandfather was a sailor in the South Pacific during WWII. Many friends currently serve in the Middle East.

I am intensely proud of each of them.

It is nice to see that people still remember the sacrifices many people have made, and continue to make today.

50
chirky
May 31, 2007

I have dozens of stories I could tell you about my dad. Dozens of his memories. Initially I struggled whether they were mine to tell, and finally decided: YES, they're mine. He's my dad. These stories have affected how I live my life. These stories should be told and retold for those who don't understand the sacrifices soldiers make.

My dad was a Navy S.E.A.L. He went on four tours in three years. He was in the hot zone. He carried the bodies of his dead friends back to US soil. Twenty seconds after he and his best friend switched places, he watched the head of his best friend get blown off. He feels extreme guilt that it wasn't him that died that day.

When he returned to the states from war, Americans spit on him as he walked through the airport.

It has been more than thirty five years since he was in Vietnam, and he still wakes with nightmares each night. He has seen and done things that most of us could never imagine.

He still stays in touch with the men in his troops. They are like family, even to me. They understand him. They know him. They've been through hell and back with him. They are the most solid of rocks for one other, for our families.

And they deserve the utmost respect, regardless of whether we agree with the war.

So thank you, Holly, for recognizing a much overlooked holiday.

51
Phil
May 31, 2007

This isn't a combat story, but I think it's a piece of the serviceman's experience. My dad was in the Naval Air Corps during WWII, and at one time was stationed in Memphis. He and a buddy used some liberty to venture down to Beale Street to some jazz clubs. Apparently, the "black" clubs were off-limits. As they were sitting at a table in one of the clubs enjoying the music, the (black) proprietor came to their table and whispered, "Shore Patrol, boys. Come with me."

He escorted them to his private office and offered them access to his private bar until the coast was clear.

How my dad could have harbored the racism he evinced during my upbringing is one of those baffling mysteries of human interaction.

52
jonniker
May 31, 2007

I am late, as I always am, but I lost a friend in the early days of the Iraq war. He was killed in Kuwait by a disgruntled American soldier who threw grenades into his tent, and when I think about it, I want to throw up.

Dying in a war like the one we're in now feels senseless enough, but Chris's death felt even more sickening, because it came from our side, I don't know.

Separately, I've covered a lot of veterans in my work as a journalist, and every. single. time. I have to bite back tears when I'm interviewing them. The lives these people have led - the strange magic, the unbelievable bravery they put forth without even thinking about it. Oh, it makes me cry every time.

53
Sarah
May 31, 2007

I just wanted to say that you are an amazing writer and a damn cool chick. thanks for this.

54
Sarah
May 31, 2007

My dad is a Vietnam vet and has organized the Memorial Day services in my hometown for as long as I can remember. I was able to make it back this year for the ceremony, and hearing taps brought tears to my eyes just as quickly as it ever did. I'm glad you took a moment for Memorial Day; so few people do anymore. Take care

55
tulip
May 31, 2007

My dad is a veteran. My brother is now in active duty.

I'm glad you're such a patriot.

56
Nothing But Bonfires
May 31, 2007

I feel that I should clarify that I don't actually SUPPORT war -- this current war or any war. I'm just fascinated by the people who serve and the stories they come back with. And I'm not particularly patriotic -- to either England OR America.

57
Pam in SC
May 31, 2007

Holly,
After reading your post the other day, then coming back again to reread it and the comments, I am really touched. I've just had an Aha moment, if that's not too cliche. And the goosebumps and lump in my throat will not go away. This is truly a well-written (and well-photographed) piece.

Thanks for opening my eyes.

58
trinity67
Jun 01, 2007

Oh my God that brought tears to my eyes.

Thank you for that. Really.

You are awesome.

59
barbie2be
Jun 01, 2007

that was beautiful, Holly. both my grandfather (who i never met) and my grandmother that i am named after are buried in that cemetery.

my father served in WWII, joining the navy as a 21 year old farm boy from south dakota. he ended up in a display at the smithsonian institute. his ship captured the first german battleship in the south pacific and since my father was the only one on his ship that spoke german he led the boarding party. the flag that they captured that day and a picture of my father are in the WWII display in washington DC. i have never seen it but hope to some day. my father passed away in 1988 at the age of 68 and i miss him (and his stories) every single moment of every day.

60
karli
Jun 01, 2007

Really lovely post, but it was the part about the veteran that made me cry. I deem any writing as excellent that spurs that much emotion. Thank you.

61
esther
Jun 02, 2007

My husband is Active Duty Special Forces. I read all of these comments, and not only want to thank you for a tremendously touching post, but all of the people who shared a nugget of military life and memories with you.

Memorial Day is more than a sale, or a vacation day, or a calendar fashion reminder...

Best,
Esther H. (and her family)