Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, began in the 19th century to honor those who died defending their country. Over the years its scope was expanded to honor everybody who died. That’s fine. Remembering the dead is all part of life. Veterans Day, once known as Armistice Day, began in the 20th century and it also was established to honor fallen soldiers. It, too, has acquired a broader meaning and now includes all veterans.
This is where I have a problem. To honor those who fought for their country and came home alive is, to me, inappropriate unless we change the name to “Veterans and Lucky Suckers Day.” If you went to war and didn’t get killed, you’re a lucky sucker.
For many years Veterans Day meant nothing to me other than a day off. Like Labor Day, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July it was a welcome respite. Then people started thanking me for serving and some even wished me a “Happy Veterans Day,” an oxymoronic expression if there ever was one. Happy Veterans Day? You’ve got to be kidding.
One of the mind’s defense mechanisms categorizes then pigeonholes past experiences. That’s what I do on these redundant holidays. On Memorial Day I remember with fondness and sadness my parents, grandparents and other civilian loved ones who passed away. I save my dead military friends for Veterans Day. But I’d rather mourn them all in one day and get it over with.
Perhaps my take on Veterans Day is negatively influenced because my war was Vietnam. When we came home many, perhaps most, Americans did not consider us bona fide veterans. Had a day been established for us back in the 1970s, they’d have called it Baby Killers Day. Over the decades that has changed, however, and we baby killers have joined the honorable ranks of our brothers and sisters from World Wars I and II, Korea and assorted skirmishes in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. We are grateful for the air cover of time.
Last night I dreamt of flying airplanes onto bombed-out runways and flying helicopters that were coming apart. The dream had rockets, mortars and machine guns in it — weapons for human destruction. I heard again the screams, saw the bodies, woke up in a sweat. All day today I’ve seen the faces. Bobby, who heard on take-off that his first child was born and who, an hour later, was blown out of the sky. It was a girl. Tom, the happiest of newlyweds who got vertigo in the clouds and flew into a mountain. He’d been in-country two days. Burned alive. Chuck, flying a Huey at 2,000 feet, got his hydraulics shot out. You can’t fly a Huey without hydraulics. He had 2,000 feet of unimaginable terror. So did his crew, My commanding officer, Edward, had an unshakable premonition he would die in Vietnam. He did. Happy Veterans Day.
Lest you think I’m unpatriotic, let me hasten to say that I am proud of having served my country in uniform. When my time comes I hope my ashes will be scattered over a golf course from a low flying gunship. But do I want to be honored every year with a special day just for doing the right thing? No. It’s a detraction from the real heroes.
On the other hand I do not begrudge my fellow veterans who, half in and out of uniform, march down the street wearing snazzy hats, medals and seriously prideful expressions. Not only do I not begrudge them their annual moment, I envy them. I wish I, too, could join the parade down Main carrying a flag and waving to the kids. Unfortunately, my faces won’t let me.