DEFENDING AMERICA
BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
23 May 2000

"LEST WE FORGET"

Another Memorial Day is upon us. Not that it's that big a deal to most Americans, who don't seem to understand what this holiday is all about. But for combat veterans and their families it's a day of reflection, a time to honor fallen comrades.

As the years pass, M-Day's taken on an even more special meaning for me. Old pals who back in their young and foolish days were brave mud soldiers are checking out faster than I want to count.

Almost every week now I get the word that another brother's gone. Sometimes it's a phone call in the middle of the night, a letter or an obituary piece I've been sent about a friend I fought alongside.

Each death notice brings pain. Some bring tears. All bring reflection that dials up the face of a brother I grew to love a long time ago. A love born from terrible strife where we had the searing privilege of getting to know each other as few men ever do.

Back then, we thought we were damned to be the chosen few. But now, so many years later, we know the truth: It was the defining and most challenging period of our lives.

Together, we saw the elephant.

On the battlefield there's no faking it. A guy is either a good man who'd die before letting his brothers down or a dud the outfit figures out how to unload. You get to join The Brotherhood only if you're trusted, only because you've earned the respect of the other elephant hunters.

For me, after the shock wears off from hearing the bad news, reason sets in: "Eventually everyone's going out feet first. My old friend just beat me by a few ticks."
Next, the process seems to move quickly to the good times shared and why my pal was so special and why his memory won't disappear until I do.

Then I'm ringing a brother, giving him word of the death, and we start in with the old "Remember when ..." jazz, retelling all the fun stuff about our fallen mate. We never dwell on the horror or go to the dark side of the moon. Maybe that's how we keep it together and move on.

Another thought that always comes front and center in my head is why did Frank or Billy or Phil die now and not me? This was the question we all silently asked ourselves back on the battlefield when a comrade didn't get up after a fight. It didn't seem fair then, and it doesn't now. But whoever said this crap game called life was fair?

The loved ones of World War II and the Korean vets are hearing "Taps" played at funerals at the rate of almost 2,000 a day, and now the Vietnam vets are stepping up for their turn at the death plate. The combat-vet dying business has become a boom industry and will continue to roar for the next couple of decades until the ranks are exhausted.

And by then, M-Day might have morphed further into a meaningless extended-weekend party no longer even momentarily interrupted by glimpses of flags or sound bites from politicians jawing some insincere patriotic gobbledygook. Only the still-serving and families and friends of the departed will still care about what our warriors went through, the sacrifices they made.

Seems like we're almost there now. Liberty and the good life are so taken for granted that few folks can be bothered to spend M-Day remembering -- honoring those who died so we could be free to do our thing. No one's had to buy a freedom ticket for a long time, and the living's easy. Minimum wage, Social Security, a college degree -- all that good American stuff -- are there pretty much for the asking. No price of admission paid. No respect for those who did pay. Just gimme gimme gimme.

I'm afraid one of these days soon some fast operator will come along and try to change Memorial Day into something else. You know, a name change due to a new sponsor.

Hope you'll kill that ignoble idea quick smart and that you'll visit a Veterans Home this week and tell those valiant men and women you haven't forgotten their sacrifices.