Memorial Day is more than flags and speeches
My wife, Lori, and I recently attended the wedding of my nephew in Fayetteville. While there, we wandered around downtown for a couple of meals and I was reminded of how the city’s affiliation with the monster military machine of Ft. Bragg defines this Southern town.
Fort Bragg is the largest U.S. Army base by population, with more than 52,000 active duty soldiers. The base also has more than 12,000 reservists, almost 9,000 civilian employees and 63,000 active duty family members. Throw in almost 100,000 retirees and their family members, and you begin to get the scope of the military’s impact. All told, the census bureau pegs the metropolitan area’s population at about 375,000.
Being a military kid myself, I never really had a hometown or a homeplace. We just moved too much. I was 10 when we got to Fayetteville, so the eight years I spent there until college meant it was where I spent some very impressionable years.
At the time the whole affiliation with the military was just normal, especially in the neighborhood we lived in, which was very close to the base. My father was retired Navy, but so many of my buddies had fathers still in active duty or recently retired — or they lived in single-parent homes because their fathers had died in action in Vietnam.
Still others lived in single-parent homes because dad couldn’t cope with the skeletons he brought back from the war and mom had to escape with the kids to save the remnants of her family. PTSD wasn’t officially recognized by psychiatrists until 1980, but during my years in Fayetteville — 1970-78 — we all knew it was real and that many dads suffered terribly. Some of my friends feared their fathers, and, when they got to their teen years, physically brawled with them.
Most people experienced the Vietnam War through television and new stories, but kids growing up in this neighborhood had very close ties to that conflict. When my mom and dad split up and my mother married a Vietnam vet who was one of those who did not make it back in one piece, I got to experience first-hand some of the trauma those guys dealt with. Simply put, it was hell. And so for a short while he made our lives a part of that hell.
That marriage ended — thankfully — and mom married another Vietnam vet. This one, James, never got a full night’s sleep after the war, and you’d find him up at all hours. But he was kind and generous, a great stepdad. Then he started having strokes and other debilitating problems we later learned were linked to his exposure to Agent Orange. He never complained, but he spent his last few years completely bed-ridden due to the after-effects of his service to this country.
James was also Hispanic. My kids knew him as “Abuelo.” One of the characteristics of military cities like this is that they have a very international flavor. The moms among my friend group were from Germany, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, England, Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
I was reminded of that when we wandered around Fayetteville while attending that wedding. Back when the South was not very diverse, this little city was a place of many languages and a very multi-cultural place. On-base schools and neighborhoods were integrated very early. It was normal, and I think it helped me become an adult who accepted, embraced and appreciated this country as a melting pot.
When I think of the military service of my father, my father-in-law, my stepfather and my brother, it is linked to this country’s attitude toward immigrants and those seeking a better life for their families. When our soldiers fight against tyrants and totalitarian regimes abroad, the message from our politicians on down to those on the front lines is that we won’t abide those who trample on the rights of those who can’t defend themselves.
Those who served often continue their fight long after they retire their uniform, and often those later battles have nothing to do with valor and citations. For many it’s just trying to survive from one day to the next. Just as we honored their military service on Memorial Day, let’s make sure we continue to support their struggles afterward while keeping the dream of freedom alive to those who seek it.