The question was inevitable; my kids are far too observant to not notice that the cemetery we pass at least once a week had changed. And sure enough, as we passed by, I heard my three-year-old son pipe up, “American flags!” and then his five-year-old sister asked, “But why?”
I didn’t go into a long explanation of the history of the day, but I told them that this Monday was a special day that we use to remember our military service members who died in service to their nation. At their ages, this is probably as much explanation as they need or can handle; death is something that our five-year-old is only beginning to understand as a permanent state. This time next year, the oldest will probably be old enough to hear about Danny.
They know about Danny, of course; they have seen his picture and they know that Danny was Mommy’s friend and colleague. Not all sergeants are created equal, but Danny was the kind of sergeant a young captain turned executive officer/chief of the orderly room could go to, whether it concerned a troubled airman or a report that needed clarification, and he would smile and say, “I’ll take care of it, ma’am.” And he did. He always did.
After I left active duty, we kept in touch. I admired his faith and consistency; he sent me articles about politics and we talked about how our politics and faith meshed. My husband was deployed and he was deployed, and so I checked in with him on how his wife was, and he checked in with me on how my husband was doing. We talked about how Danny hadn’t wanted to go on this last deployment, how it was simply an error on his paperwork, but that he would be home and out of the Air Force soon, and God had a plan.
My kids won’t remember the morning of April 28, 2013. It was my daughter’s third birthday, and I jumped on Facebook to post the typical picture of the birthday girl. But there were cryptic posts about a missing aircraft in the area of responsibility, and so I didn’t just get off Facebook like I thought I would. Someone mistakenly shared the callsign in a post, spurring those of us back in the states to start reaching out to our friends on that air platform. Danny was not online. He never would be again. He was one of the four crewmen on board Independence 08.
And so this year, as my kids are really getting old enough to understand what Memorial Day is all about, I asked Danny’s wife, Sonya, what she would like them to know about Monday and how it’s just not another day. But her answer was so beautiful and so applicable to so many others who have fallen that I would like to share it in its entirety:
Thank God for giving such a friend to call a husband, and what a wonderful person and blessing he was to have known! On this weekend, when we are out fishing, hiking, picnicking, and making a 3 day “holiday”, there are families out there that are hurting deeply for their loved ones. On this weekend, when you see a flag at half-staff, remember these men and women who died bravely for their country. On Monday at noon, the flag will resume at full staff. Fly it high! It is to the honor that we lower it; it is to the sweat, blood, and tears of this country's spirit made of all those men and women and their families, from the beginning to now, that we may continue to fly it high!
Most of us who served in the post-9/11 military have a Danny. Some of us have more than one. Our memories are all many of us have left of these fallen comrades. They are gone; we cannot bring them back. But by talking about them with our children, by explaining what the day is all about and making those lost to us real to them, we transmit those memories down and keep their names alive.
This Monday, please don’t forget to include children — whether it’s your children or children close to you, like a niece or nephew — in your traditions. Please make your fallen friends real to them. Show them pictures and tell them about your friend. If they’re too little to have a grasp on such abstract concepts as death and combat, you can simply tell them that this was your friend and he or she is gone now, and that you will tell them more when they’re older, but this day is for those we lost. Make a concerted effort to reach out to Gold Star families every day, but especially on Memorial Day. Whether sending a simple card or letter saying that you and your family are thinking about them, or an invitation to lunch, by honoring their families, you honor your friend. By teaching your children to honor them, you take a small step toward ensuring the next generation will not forget.
The Scottish poet Thomas Campbell wrote, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” Not transmitting our memories of our fallen friends down to our children and letting them think that Memorial Day is simply just another day off allows them a second death, this time at friendly hands. Keep their memories, and their spirits, alive. Promise their families they are not forgotten. We owe our fallen that much.