Today I sit with my ruck packed at my feet and I’m ready to be deployed to Oklahoma with Team Rubicon to help during the cleanup of another natural disaster. Last weekend I drove out to the high desert with friends to help train the Oregon National Guard. We ran around the juniper and lava rock hilltops firing blanks at our troops so they can react to situations they may encounter during their deployment to Afghanistan planned for next year. I’m still using what I learned during my military career and I’m trying to make the world a better place. The years I spent in uniform is just a series of good and bad memories and today is a day to remember.
Memorial Day was originally Decoration Day, created to honor the soldiers who died in the American Civil War. People on both sides of the war went to cemeteries and decorated the soldiers graves. In the early 20th Century Decoration Day slowly changed into Memorial Day but was still only celebrated mostly in a smattering cemeteries in the South. The holiday really became a day of reflection and remembrance after World War II, but it didn’t become an official federal holiday until 1967 and it didn’t become an observable Monday holiday until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971. Today, most think of it as the unofficial start of summer and a three-day weekend. I believe that it’s because of the wars we’re fighting now, but in the last couple years I’ve seen people give the holiday a bit more thought and reverence.
So let’s remember the men we lost in service of our country. I knew five personally:
Earl Werner was on another deployment when he died. I knew him as a quiet man. Everyone thought he was younger than his real age. Funny as hell.
Ben Isenberg was in my company but a different platoon. I only know that he was a volunteer firefighter and had a huge heart. He loved his wife and family.
Kenny Leisten fell into my squad once in training back in Louisiana. He made me laugh and I genuinely liked him. I remember having dinner once with his grieving father. He broke down in a crowded restaurant and it broke my heart.
Dave Weisenburg was one of the funniest NCOs I knew. He cracked me up all the time. We got to be friends during our training at Fort Hood.
Eric McKinley. I wrote a whole book on my relationship with him. He was some skate punk kid that didn’t take anything serious until we were told we were headed to war. Then he became one of the best soldiers I knew. I always went to his and Willingham’s trailer every morning because they had the best coffee and I loved talking to them. Sometimes he would help me forget we were at war at all. Eric was a good friend and a beautiful soul.
Today I remember these good men and think about their lives. I also think about the men who made it back and their difficulty transitioning into civilian life. I know three soldiers who tried to take their lives since coming back and I’m sure more who have thought about it. Not even the people closest to me know this, but I spent months thinking about it, thinking how easy it would have been for everyone if I had just died over there. There was so much pain to get through after getting back. I read an article today from Forbes that said one veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes. These are the best of us, dying, killing themselves.
I look back at my time in the military and realize that it gave me discipline and pride, discipline and pride I wouldn’t have had any other way. While I left the military in 2007 it hasn’t left me. What I learned in the military has shaped me into the man I am. I genuinely want to do good in this world, and I know dozens of other veterans who feel the same. Unfortunately, some of these veterans are still having difficulties. I know there are studies that say twenty-five percent of combat veterans suffer from PTSD, but I would argue that it is more than half. I would go on to argue that one-hundred percent are changed by the experience in ways they have trouble understanding.
My point… We need to honor and remember the men and women who died in service of our country, but we also need to celebrate those who are still with us. Make this holiday more than a solemn remembrance of the fallen and reach out to a veteran you know. Celebrate their life and try to understand the difficulty they are going through in their transition back into the civilian world. Have a guilt free BBQ, love your family, and help a vet celebrate life. Happy Memorial Day.