Posted by: Robin | May 29, 2008

In Memoriam

Ben at the paradeMemorial Day always been a strange holiday for me. Until my two brothers’ stints in the Navy, no one in the direct line of my family had been in the military for generations. They were too young, too old, working in a vital industry or were physically disqualified. Though I never actively demonstrated, I was on the anti-war side as a teenager during the Vietnam War. I developed a certain ambivalence about the armed forces. Yet I really wanted to give proper respect and honor to those who’d fought. When Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day came around, I felt embarrassed at my family’s lack of this kind of patriotism. At the same time I could do no more than intellectually appreciate the sacrifice generations of soldiers have made.

When I learned that my father-in-law fought in WWII, I was relieved to finally have some personal stake in these holidays. I thought he could help me understand what it was to be in battle with everything on the line, so I could more viscerally appreciate the courage and sacrifice generations of soldiers have made to preserve and protect our country. My husband explained his dad had been a road builder and hadn’t seen frontline fighting.

My genealogy research found that my great-grandmother’s only brother died in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, and that my great-great-great-grandfather died in the Civil War. Another great-great-grandfather and his brother fought in the Civil War, and other forefathers fought in the War of 1812 with Perry at the Battle of Erie, and still others in the Revolution and with the Rangers (the guys that kept the Indians in check in the early settlement of Pennsylvania colony west of the Alleghenies). Heartbreakingly, both my relatives who fought and died, lost their lives from illness. The records are unclear if it was complications of wounds they’d received in the battles they’d fought in or from disease. The story of Private Thomas Peters just made me sad. I wondered why my 42-year-old great-grandfather of my grandfather, and the father of several young children, had enlisted. How had he felt dying alone, surrounded by sick and wounded soldiers in Washington DC, so far from home four months later in December 1862, after his 137th D-PA Volunteers and the Union Army of the Potomac’s rather inglorious showing against the Confederates? Did he regret it? The more I thought about it the less I could feel his ultimate sacrifice was justified. I was left with anger at inept generals and wars fought by attrition.

I just could not make my peace with Memorial Day. I would see the shots on TV every year of fields of endless gravestones, and think I should feel this. These lives given deserve my sorrow and a gratitude that comes from the heart. Then Sunday in the middle of singing the hymn “God of Our Fathers” something shifted. I’m not sure how or why. Surely some of it was the result of a growing friendship with a man who was among the first to land on Normandy beach. Listening to him I understood that, yes, he was afraid, but it was also a matter of doing what was necessary in that moment. It was doing the job he’d undertaken and honoring the men on either side of him. Strangely, maybe watching back-to-back fourteen movies about Richard Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell’s fictional British soldier fighting in the Napoleonic wars, contributed. The films cumulatively gave me a more macro-glimpse of the life of soldiers over time in war, including why they walk back into fire over and over. Regardless, I finally connected. I understood that in the end what required my gratitude and deserved honor was their faithfulness under soul-chattering conditions.

So for all those Memorial and Veterans’ Days past when I was remiss, to:

Alan Ferver Peters and William Bradley Peters (my brothers), Joseph Harvey Painter (my father-in-law), Harry Hancock (my Normandy veteran friend), Emil, Ed and Rick Gneiting (great-uncles in WWII), Glen Vernon Parke (my great-great uncle in Spanish-American War), Thomas Samuel Peters (died in CW), Alonzo and Amos Timblin (CW), Samuel Farver and his son William Ferver (War of 1812), Patrick Scott, Daniel Gould, and William Kiskadden (Rev. War) and Jacob Hetselgesser (Rangers), and any others I have yet to discover of my blood, and the thousands who aren’t,

a very belated THANK YOU for your service, for your courage and sacrifice, for your example, and for making possible the past upon which the present I cherish is built. Memorial Day will never be the same.

 

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