Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

I'm always conflicted on Memorial Day, because I want to honor the noble intention of people who serve without honoring the political and industrial war machine that sends them into mortal danger.

Matt Teets sent me an e-mail today, and he told a beautiful and poignant story.

I wanted to tell a story this Memorial Day. I have told it a few times, and I think it is worth telling here as it involves a deceased veteran.

When I was in the military, for a time, I served on a funeral detail. In addition to actually doing funerals, we would also go out the day before to get all the details and make sure we were set up for the next day. I was stationed in Ft. Eustis, Virginia, a busy place for such duty as there are many military and VA facilities around there and the area has a history of people serving their country. 

We didn't know much about the gentleman other than he had served in the Korean War, was badly injured and spent the next 30+ years being taken care of in a VA facility. He had died with no known relatives, but there was a family plot. 

I started the day driving with our sergeant out to the funeral home to find out details, but because it was a small funeral home and apparently a busy day, we couldn't find anyone to tell us where the burial site was located. The cemetery did have a name and it was attached to a church, but there were 3 churches by that name in the area. 

What started as a routine assignment that should have taken 2 hours turned into an all day drive as we visited each of the cemeteries in turn trying to find the plot and came up empty handed. Finally we decided we would just have to "wing" it the next day and started to head back. 

By this time it was probably 6pm. 

I stopped to get a soda at a service station in a nearby town and the clerk said he was surprised to see someone dressed in fatigues in town, since we were well away from any nearby bases. He asked what I was doing and I told him about our search. He asked who was being buried and since I couldn't see what it could hurt, I told him the name. 

He told me that he thought he knew the family and that he was probably related to the school janitor. 

I told him I doubted that the janitor would be in school this late at night and he told me that it was prom night at the school and he would certainly be there, plus the school was right across the street. 

Not believing my "luck", I walked into the school and sure enough, prom was going on. Someone directed me to the janitor and he said that yes, it was his cousin. He hadn't known he had died. All his family members had passed away, but he said that a woman would be by soon to show us where he was being buried. 

A well dressed woman drove up and said to follow her and we followed her well out of town, then turned down a dusty side road before we pulled up to a burnt out husk of a building and an overgrown field. Wandering into the field we discovered there were headstones in the overgrown grass. 

As it turned out, the Klan had burnt down the original church in the mid-60s and rather than rebuild it there, they had split into three churches all somewhat equidistant. We also found where a hole had been dug and found what we assumed were his parents headstones right next to it. There were also a few pigs grazing in the field. I didn't get home until late that night, past dusk.

The next day was pouring rain, the field was a slick of mud and the wind would occasionally lash at us. The family had gathered as many relatives as they could on short notice, a strong group of men in their suits and ladies in their hats and dresses under umbrellas. The farmer had apparently rounded up his pigs and the veteran was laid to rest next to his parents.

There are a lot of stories from being on a funeral detail, many sad, some funny, but a lot of times it's job that you do. But that funeral always stays with me, because had it not been for a "lucky" set of circumstances, it could have played out differently, with just the 9 of us, laying a fellow soldier to rest in a muddy field without anyone else knowing.

There are veterans who came home to being spit on, and those who have been welcomed as heroes. But I would like all of us on Memorial Day to take a moment to remember those who are forgotten. Those who never truly made it "home", whether because they end up wasting away in a VA facility or on the streets. They can't all be so lucky, some of them will only have 9 (or less) of their fellows standing there to remember them. Take a moment and remember them as well.

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