Memorial Day is to commemorate US soldiers who died while in military service. It's to honor those who did what the majority of us aren't willing to do: sacrifice their lives for this country, its principles and its citizens.
For me, Memorial Day is also a time to remember those soldiers and veterans who are still among us but are shells of who they used to be. It is also to remember those people who after going to war, are physically living, but emotionally, mentally, spiritually gone.
A particular person comes to mind for me. Jay was wroth after the 9/11 attacks and like many did at that time, signed up for the Armed Forces. He served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he finally finished, he came back to the US, broken. Overcome with guilt, he couldn't even consider forgiving himself for what he'd done.
"I'm a mass murderer," he told me.
"Jay," I said, "you weren't on the streets, killing people for the hell of it. You enlisted and fought a war because you wanted to protect this country."
"I'm worse than scum," he said many times.
"No you're not," I would answer. "You did what most of us wouldn't even consider doing. You risked your life over and over again to defend the United States."
"It was a pointless war," he said. "We shouldn't be there."
"Well, I won't argue with that," I said. "But when you signed up, you didn't know that; you just want to help any way you could - and you did."
It made no difference.
Jay didn't drink, do drugs or gamble. He was incredibly responsible. Despite that, he barely functioned.
Jay refused to go to therapy because he thought it was a joke. He scoffed at the idea of PTSD. "That's something doctors invented to get people to buy drugs." He'd talk to me, I'd listen, but I wasn't a therapist. While I could be there for him, there was only so much I could do to help.
Eventually, it was the guilt that separated us. He felt he didn't deserve anything good and he was racked with guilt that someone like me would invest time and energy into someone like him, so he disappeared.
I don't know where Jay is. Maybe we live in the same city. Maybe he's in Iraq or Afghanistan (even though he grew to detest the war, he considered reenlisting because he felt it's what he deserved). Maybe he's getting some therapy or started going back to church or got in a healthy relationship. Maybe he's dead. If he is, while it might not have directly been the result of this war, it's more than likely connected to it.
I under no circumstances mean to disrespect the memories of American soldiers who have died in war, nor the feelings of their loved ones. There is a separate day to celebrate all veterans. Nevertheless, on Memorial Day, I honor Jay and others like him who have forgotten how to live, who feel dead inside because they are so overwhelmed by their grief, guilt and horror of war. This Monday I'm memorializing them too.