It’s WHO We Celebrate. Not WHAT.


Sometimes a story must be told in its entirety to fully fathom its significance.  I believe this is one of those times, so I  hope you will indulge me regarding its length.

I want you to meet Terry. For reasons you will soon understand, I omit his last name. But he was a friend of mine, and those are words I’m proud to write.

Terry was one of those kids you just couldn’t help but like. Tall, gangly, and shy, he was raised by his grandparents when his single mother abandoned him. But Terry made the best of it, always managing to find something to smile about. He wasn’t blessed with a lot of natural skills, so he worked hard at being the best he could be in everything he did – the best ball player, the best student. The best friend. He never wound up being the best of anything but that last item. You could count on Terry to give his all in any task he did. And his was a friendship you could take to the bank and collect interest.

Terry was naturally impatient, like a lot of kids our age. But with Terry, it was as if he somehow knew he wasn’t to be afforded as many years as the rest of us. Like the cliché, he lived his life as if every day might be his last. But unlike most who live their lives that way, Terry had plans. Knowing his grandparents couldn’t afford to send him to college, he decided to join the military and take advantage of the GI bill when he got out. It was a four-year plan that simply made sense to Terry. Although his grandparents feared he might be sent to fight in the Vietnam war, they knew once Terry made his mind up, there was no point in trying to talk him out of it.

When one hears about the death of a soldier during war, it’s often told as a tale of bravery, courage under fire. Sometimes, however, death’s suddenness springs unexpectedly… One moment you’re talking with your buddy about the plans you’re making for when you each get home, and the next instant you hear a sickening sound and watch helplessly as your friend slumps to the ground – a portion of his head blown away by a sniper. That was how Terry’s best friend in his unit described his death. He continued his description to me, some years later:

“In an instant, he was gone. It’s the odd things you recall.” He then described what he remembered. I have tried to capture the essence of his memories here:

  • Sometimes, there’s no dramatic last words. He’s alive one moment, and dead the next.
  • Sometimes, there’s no tragic throes or struggles to gasp for breath. It’s simply done.
  • Sometimes, there’s no staggering, no crawling, or desperate attempts to reach safety like you see in the movies. The stroke of death leaves you suddenly without any muscular control and you simply fall at the whim of gravity. Done.
  • Perhaps most eerily, you suddenly realize that the bullet arrived prior to the sound of the shot that killed your friend. That means he was dead from that bullet before the sound of the shot reached his lifeless body. You’re not sure why that matters to you, but it does.

This is how it was for my friend Terry, to die in service to his country. But the story doesn’t end there. because the problem with the dead is that they leave behind the living.

At Terry’s funeral, dozens of extended family and friends grieved. There was something horribly wrong in the world that day and we all knew it. Each of us left the cemetery realizing that a young man who did everything the right way and deserved to come home and raise a family with his same values was now gone.

I share Terry’s story here because I want to make a point: Multiply that tragedy by over 58,000, and you have some idea of the scope of the loss in human lives from the Vietnam war. Each one of those 58,000 was a “Terry” to someone. Every single one of them.

Now multiply that by close to two million which represents the approximate number of soldiers who died in all the wars the United States has fought in both at home and abroad, and you have some idea of the impact. These are the people we honor on Memorial Day. These are the men and women who gave their lives so that we can be free. Many thousands more survived, but with wounds that left them with far less than the complete lives they saved on our behalf.

It is important that we live our lives with as much purpose, meaning, and dignity as possible as a tribute to those who never had the chance, and for those who sacrificed much of their health in the process. To squander the opportunity they have given us would be to trivialize their sacrifices and their loss.

While it’s the leaders who establish their vision of the future, it’s the young soldier who pays the price, each one willing to lay down his or her life so that those who come after them can live and flourish. If we cannot properly honor them for their sacrifices, then we truly no longer deserve the freedom their sacrifices provided to us.

Gerry Ashley, USAF Veteran (Vietnam Era)

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