Why Memorial Day Isn't Just A Reason For A Picnic Anymore

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy black logo with a red crown illustration

When my little brother Will first talked about joining the United States military, I went into denial. I figured it had more to do with his childhood fascination for weapons and history than any sort of real plan for his life. I also knew the rest of our family would freak out as much as I would, so I didn’t worry about it too much.

Why would we freak out? Three reasons.

1. Danger. I don’t speak for my siblings, but I myself am a pacifist coward. When I see danger, I grab my nearest and dearest, and run for the hills. (And I’m a terrible runner.)

2. America. I get very nervous about how Americans are perceived in certain parts of the world and wouldn’t want my brother to be punished because of a government he didn’t make, and has nothing to do with.

3. Surrender. Not the kind you’re thinking. The military isn’t going to have my brother’s best interests at heart when they decide where he’ll go and what he’ll do there. I don’t blame them for it; they wouldn’t be able to function otherwise. So the idea of having them make all the decisions for him, from when he’ll get up and how he’ll exercise and when and what he’ll eat to where he’ll live and work and what he’ll be assigned to do brings out the rebel in me. I don’t like being told what to do, and since when was that something Will was interested in?

Unlike me, Will was indeed interested. And last year, he enlisted.

He went off to boot camp, and then started training to be a medic. He just graduated. We were all immensely relieved (as in crying and laughing at the same time relieved) to hear that his first posting will be fairly local, somewhere where we can visit him and he can visit us, here in the United States, away from the dangerous places we all fear if we let ourselves think about it too much.

And now here comes the Memorial Day parade, and I’m starting to think about it in a new way.

I’ve always loved the parade. I live in a small town, which means that we can walk out about 20 minutes before it starts, and still find a seat in the shade. We bring snacks and drinks, we run into some other families we know and lots we don’t, and we cheer and clap as the parade goes by. There are antique cars, and fire trucks, and boy and girl scouts. There are volunteer groups and ladies in flowered hats, and local politicians and karate clubs.

And then there are Marines, on good years, and sailors. Soldiers. And veterans, of course, who are the ones most cheered by the crowds at the parade.

I used to look at them, and feel disconnected. I cheered along with everyone else, and watched my kids clap, and didn’t really feel anything.

It changed for the first time a few years ago. I remember the moment. The United States was sending soldiers to the Middle East in droves, and suddenly the sailors looked so young to me. Maybe it’s the uniforms, which usually make me think of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra dancing around New York City so joyfully. But suddenly they looked like kids, and I realized they could be my children, and for the first time, I wept for them.

But they were still a them.

And this year, when we attend the parade that is there not to amuse our kids on a summer day, but to honor those lost in military service, I will be looking at it differently. I’ll think about how my brother will make friends and then lose them. He will, eventually, see death and loss, and because he’s a medic, he will save lives and send other soldiers home to their families. And some, he won’t be able to save, and I don’t know how that will change him.

We are a military family now. We are a pretty unusual family in multiple ways I didn’t anticipate when I was a kid, but I can’t think of anything that’s happened to us that I could have predicted less.

We’re not what people expect of a military family. I don’t think America is the greatest country in the world, or that any country is. I think it’s our duty as citizens to appreciate what we have, but also to question the status quo.

And I think it’s my duty now to support my brother any way I can. I’m in awe of him. He enlisted with full family support, but also full family bewilderment. He’s physically strong and mentally disciplined. He can do things I’ll never be able to do, and he is thriving in his new life. He’s found success and achievement, personal strength and self-worth, and pride in himself. And they’re making him a superhero; he will be able to get through any obstacle, in any climate, in any terrain to do his job, which is a truly noble one.

And on Memorial Day, when I look at the soldiers marching, and realize they are now contemporaries of my brother’s, I will feel the emotions swell, and I will feel that connection to them I never felt before. He is one of them, and we are just like their families, now, with all of our fears, all of our pride, and all of our love.

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