I am a Vietnam veteran. I didn’t volunteer to go. A full disclaimer requires that I tell you I really didn’t want to go.
My opposition to serving in Vietnam wasn’t political. I was a surfer on the beaches of Florida who, frankly, would have rather stayed home and enjoyed my life. But I was one of 2,700,000 Americans who believed it was my obligation to serve my country, and so I reluctantly saluted as I boarded a plane to Southeast Asia. My effort never had the feel of the heroes we honor on Memorial Day. Part of me will always wish it did.
It has been 45 years since I left for Vietnam. Forty-five years since my life changed in ways that are too many to remember anymore. I will admit that even after all these years, I don’t feel much different about my days there. On the rare occasions when I talk to my students about my months there, I tell them I can still see Vietnam, I can hear it, and I can smell it.
I speak to them at times of my regrets, but those feelings are a side of me that most of the girls at GPS can’t really understand. They cannot appreciate the concept of survivor’s guilt. Their limited life experiences have not prepared them to be able to wrap their arms around the idea of a band of brothers whose only shared historical DNA is combat.
To their credit, my girls thank me for my service. Their parents have raised them well. But I wonder if they understand, really understand, what I am feeling when I describe the sense of loss and guilt I experience when I think about those days so many years ago.
For most Americans, Monday is Memorial Day; a time to remember those who have died in the service of their country. But for many of Chattanooga’s veterans, few days go by that aren’t marked by memories of the brothers and sisters we lost in places we cannot forget. Places, perhaps, we would rather not forget.
Some of us veterans have our own memorial days when we, when no one is looking, stop by the National Cemetery to walk among the graves. I doubt our families know we go, but we do. I’ve seen our faces. We don’t talk or wave. I don’t think we find comfort in our visits, but we remember and memorialize our losses, in private. As I wander through the headstones, I would like to believe there is some purpose to my own survival. But maybe it isn’t that complicated. Maybe I simply survived while others didn’t.
The reality of Monday’s Memorial Day is this: Over the last 236 years, over 1,350,000 men and women have died to protect the freedoms and interests of the United States of America. As Americans, we have an historic responsibility to express our gratitude for their sacrifices and those of their families. Each of their deaths marked the end of a life where promises went unfulfilled. Each loss left a hole in the life of a family that can never be filled. Every American owes a debt to the fallen; debts that can never be repaid.
Memorial Day gives us the opportunity to give quiet thanks for those sacrifices, but I would like to offer one additional thought. Memorial Day could also be a day when we pledge to one another that no American would ever again fall unnecessarily. That pledge would require that we meet our obligation to be informed citizens of a democratic society.
Democracy cannot thrive on military might alone. In fact, it will not survive in America unless each of us requires the best of our political leaders and demands they never commit Americans to harm’s way unless there is no other viable option available to us. An America that casually practices war is an America sure to die by its own hand; a hand that squeezes the life from its own heart. Sadly, our country has made those mistakes during my lifetime, and we must learn not to repeat them.
On this Memorial Day I would hope all Americans would wander the great American battlefields and imagine the sacrifices of their fellow citizens. Go to a national cemetery or visit the village square of Lexington or the farmland of Gettysburg or the beaches of Normandy or the rice paddies of South Vietnam or the mountains of Afghanistan. Take your children, if only through the doors of the Internet, but go and remember the pain, the sacrifice and love of country each fallen hero experienced. Help your children to understand that a strong America is a grateful America and a wise America.
I believe those should be the goals of a modern American Memorial Day. I believe our country will then have honored our fallen in the best and most appropriate ways possible.
Randy Tucker is headmaster at Girls Preparatory School. He served in Vietnam as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army in 1968-69. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.