Yesterday was memorial day in the United States. Every year, on the last Monday in May, we Americans fire up the grill, go to parades, ignite fireworks, buy red-white-and-blue everything, and celebrate the unofficial start of summer. We hang our flags, complain about the heat, and have a drink or four to commemorate the day off from work.
Meanwhile, like many holidays in the United States, we forget the actual meaning and purpose of the holiday. Memorial Day was originally called “Decoration Day”, and no, it didn’t signify decorating our McMansions with red white and blue windsocks and ensuring our patio furniture had just the right feng shui to go with our new $700 grill that we got at a Memorial Day blowout sale. It was originally intended as a somber event to honor Union soldiers who had died during the American Civil War. One would visit a cemetery to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. It morphed into including all men and women of any war after World War I.
History lessons aside, it’s a tough day for many widows, but for the majority of Americans, it’s a day off.
I will be the first to tell you that I am totally guilty of the same thinking, and actions. I am a United States Marine Corps veteran, serving with Marine Wing Communication Squadron 28 in Cherry Point, North Carolina from 1998 - 2002. I have no excuse. More than a decade after my discharge, and I have fallen into the same trap of seeing Memorial Day as a chance to have a long weekend, rather than a reason to remember and honor Sergeant Jeanette Winters, and others that I knew personally that gave their life in service to the country.
It was not until this morning, as I sat down to write, that I really began reflecting on this.
Sergeant Winters had been in the Marine Corps about a year when I arrived on base. She was a radio operator, serving in the platoon next door to my own data-communications platoon, and she lived about four doors down from my barracks room. She had already made an impact on new Marines arriving in our unit in her first year, functioning almost as a “den mother”...training them, guiding them on not being idiots (I mean, 90% of us were teenagers), motivating them to learn, become better Marines, and to have fun, but not too much. She outranked me, and to say I was slightly intimidated by what can only be described as one badassed Lance Corporal (at the time) who knew her stuff and happened to be a female Marine (which always comes with a slight chip on one’s shoulder) would be an understatement.
We served in the same unit together for 3 more years, and grew to be friends, as most Marines that spend more than a few weeks together do. We were not incredibly close, by any stretch, but all of us were part of one big family. Sergeant Winters, who was due to be discharged in the summer of 2001, instead re-enlisted. Her sense of duty and commitment would not let her simply walk away. She was transferred to a base in California, but with social media and internet chat in its infancy, a few of us still kept somewhat in touch, giving updates on whatever “sucked” at the time back at her old base, good natured ribbing about how she took the easy way out and got the hell out of North Carolina, and ultimately wishing she was still around to whip the “boots” (new Marines fresh out of boot camp) into shape.
Then September 11, 2001 happened.
She didn’t bat an eye when she was deployed to Pakistan shortly thereafter. I remember the scuttlebutt about “Winters’ going to war” around our unit, and everyone had an odd sense of jealousy that she was “getting” to be there (it’s a bored-Marine thing). Some of us sent her brief emails, basically wishing her good luck, knowing we wouldn’t get a response because she was surely buckled down getting mentally prepared.
She was a radio operator on a KC-130 refueler plane, that crashed in Pakistan on January 9th, 2002. Not only was she the first US servicewoman to die in the “War on Terror”, she was the first person I ever served with to die. Nobody has ever determined why the plane crashed, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. Since then, I’ve known a dozen or so Marines that I served with that have been killed, and another dozen or so maimed, but Sergeant Winters was the first, and a perfect example of why Memorial Day exists.
And to bring this somber day back full circle, there are literally thousands of widows and widowers in the United States that can’t forget the true meaning of the day, as hard as they try. Cookouts and Parades mean little to someone forced to acknowledge that the person they loved is gone. To the spouses, parents, and children that got that uniformed visit to their front door, Memorial Day is quite literally a congressionally-sanctioned reminder that someone died in service.
I need to remember this. I need to remember those I served with that weren’t as lucky as I. I need to remember that my whole story...my marriage, our daughter, the pain of being widowed, Sarah, and my little house in Akron Ohio would never had happened if someone else hadn’t taken my place, unflinchingly, with honor, courage, and commitment.
Semper Fidelis, Sergeant Winters.