As we all look forward to big barbecues this weekend, take a moment to remember the fallen.
My husband, who is substantially older than me, served in Vietnam. The first KIA his unit took was his 2nd Lieutenant. (The life expectancy of USMC 2nd Lieutenants in Vietnam was, on average, two to five days.) For years, he thought about contacting this man's family to express his condolences on the loss of someone he considered a true leader. About 30 years ago, he was near the man's hometown while traveling through a nearby airport. He picked up the phone at the airport, began dialing, then hung up, because what could he say, after all?
The issue hung in his mind for another 15 years, then I suggested that he research the man's family to see if he could find any relatives and try again. He located a brother, Tommy, and placed a call.
Over the years, this Tommy had received a number of calls about his brother, all of which turned out to be placed by people who never served, didn't know his brother, and for whatever reason called anyway. He'd become expert at ferreting out the liars, so he asked my husband how his brother looked when he got to San Diego to meet up with his unit. My husband told Tommy his brother had a black eye, which was true. Tommy asked how he got it. My husband said, "From you" -- also true. There was no bad blood between the brothers -- they'd just been in a barroom brawl with a bunch of other Marines the night before. They spoke for about an hour, and my husband got the chance to tell Tommy what a terrific leader his brother had been.
Some weeks later, we traveled to Connecticut to meet Tommy and his sons. His sons had heard about their uncle all their lives, but were born long after the war. My husband told Tommy and his sons all of the stories he had about Richie, their uncle.
A few months later, we traveled to the Marine Corps museum in Virginia to meet up with Tommy again, but this time were joined by two other grunts from their squad, and by their sergeant. Everyone brought pictures, NVA flags, and everything else they could think of to share with Tommy and his sons. None of these men had seen one another in 50 years, and their wives and I watched as they began talking excitedly, laughing and smiling, as if they had seen one another the day before. I turned to one of the other wives and said, "We could run through here naked right now, and they wouldn't even notice!"
A few years ago, we went back to Connecticut to visit Tommy, and he took us to his brother's grave. The full weight of the cost of war fell on me as I subtracted the year of his birth from his death -- he was 23. And at 23, he'd already given more to his country than most of us ever will.
As we celebrate this year's Memorial Day, please remember the Richies. Remember the men who pledged "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor" to found this new nation in 1776 -- most of whom died penniless. Remember those who've made that ultimate sacrifice ever since then. It's the least we can do.