A Combat Veteran’s Advice on How to Remember the True Meaning of Memorial Day

By Lt. Col. (Ret.) Mark Leslie

For me, Memorial Day is difficult. It is a day filled with mixed emotions. I am not overly sensitive, but it upsets me when someone innocently says “Happy Memorial Day,” or thanks me for my service.

This day is not about me, or anyone else that served or is currently wearing the uniform. This day is to honor those that have perished in the service of our nation - those that have made the ultimate sacrifice; those that are no longer with us; those we were privileged to know.

I’m not one of the veterans that say “All the heroes I know are dead” because they are not. I know plenty of true-life heroes. I served with many of them; many of them are right here at Fort Polk while others are scattered across the nation and globe. They are very much alive. They are extraordinary human beings that performed incredible acts of selfless service and bravery, on and off the battlefield. I am honored and privileged to have known these soldiers — it is one of the many blessings I have had in my life and I reflect on them often. But they are honored on Veterans Day, not Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is for heroes no longer here with us. Admittedly, some of them are no longer here because of things beyond a leader’s control and honest mistakes caused by the fog of war and the fact that combat is just that — combat. I share this only to help put this in context to the meaning of Memorial Day and why so many veterans feel the same ire when one wishes us a happy Memorial Day.

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Mark Leslie | Photo credit DVIDS/Chuck Cannon

It is not necessarily a happy day, but neither is it a day filled with remorse. It is a strange mix of emotions that those not experienced with the bond that service builds, or the horror of combat and the loss that accompanies it, will ever understand.

I feel grateful for having known a few of those that have made this ultimate sacrifice, and I reflect on the time shared with them as some of the highlights of my life.

I feel I would have a much emptier life if I had not been given this gift of knowing them, their friendship and soldierly camaraderie. But then I feel deeply saddened that their family, and we as an Army and a nation, lost them so early and their full potential will never be known. Sometimes — no, many times — not just on Memorial Day, I am grief-stricken with thoughts of them. I feel that this grief is somewhat selfish, for what I feel can be nothing compared to what their family feels.

In my 30 years in the Army and several conflicts, I was considered rather bold and maybe even reckless with my own safety in dangerous situations. I don’t think it was brave, just fear cloaked in necessity, and the bravado and showmanship required of my position.

But those characteristics do not carry on in every aspect of life. Memorial Day 2019 marked the sixth anniversary of one of my close friends being killed in combat. As of 2019, I had yet to summon the moral courage to visit his final resting place and pay my proper respects, to share that final drink with him or tell him how much I miss him. I had refrained for many reasons, but I think that revelation alone should tell the uninitiated why I don’t want you to tell me, “Happy Memorial Day,” and I think many combat veterans harbor the same thoughts.

So, on this Memorial Day 2020, when you see your veteran husband, father, wife, mother, son or daughter deep in reflection, don’t wish them a “Happy Memorial Day.” Give them a moment, give them some space, give them some understanding and finally, just maybe, give them a hug. Let them know you understand. Listen to the stories they tell of their friends.

As the noted English novelist Terry Pratchett said: “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”

This quote aptly fits the stories told by a veteran of a friend no longer here. He is likely trying to keep his friend’s memory alive through telling of his exploits and contributions.

A hero lives forever in the minds of many.

Today is not about the veteran or the active-duty soldier — it is about the men and women buried across this nation in countless veteran and local cemeteries. They are not faceless, they are our friends, and fathers, mothers, sons and daughters — and we miss them.

Honor them on this and every Memorial Day.

-This story originally appeared on DVIDShub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.

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