I have been lucky. Many of my friends and family members – and I know many of those who are kind enough to read Gunpowder & Lead – have people close to them who have given their lives in service. I have never lost anyone like that. I know I don’t carry the kind of raw personal connection to Memorial Day that, to name one, Alex Horton writes about so achingly beautifully. I do try to honor it each year, though, because the sacrifice these people and their families have made – and the fact that it has ever been, and continues to be, necessary – matters to all of us.
For the last few years, I have spent a little time each Memorial Day at the flag garden planted on Boston Common by the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund. There are 33,000 flags this year, one for each MA service member who has died in service from the Civil War to today.
There are a lot of stories that stick with me through the year, and the one I found myself thinking about most today as I looked at the field of flags fluttering across the hill was that of Sgt. Dennis Weichel. I didn’t know Sgt. Weichel, but I know what kind of man he was by how he died.
This past March, Sgt. Weichel’s unit was traveling in a convoy in Laghman Province, Afghanistan, when they came on a group of children in the road. Sgt. Weichel was one of the men who got out of their vehicles to clear the road. As the MRAP started to move again, he saw that one little girl had run back into its path.
That is a split-second kind of moment. There isn’t time to consider whether an attempt to save her might be fatal, to weigh the value of your own life against that of a small Afghan girl. What you do in that moment is not about being a man, or a soldier, or an American. It is not about training, or calculation, or decision-making. It is built into who you are.
Sgt. Weichel jumped into the street. He pushed the little girl to safety. She was unhurt. He died. That’s hero stuff. A huge vehicle was about to hit a little girl. He made sure it didn’t. I didn’t know Sgt. Weichel, but he’s who I’m remembering this Memorial Day.
The flag garden is a beautiful and somber reminder of the sacrifice made by these service men and women, and their loved ones. Even more than that, to me, it is a reminder of how much we should all passionately want peace, and work to nurture it, and build it, so that in the future we won’t have to lose so many of the best of us this way.
It is easy to get angry and look to attack, to get impatient with diplomacy, or even to get overwhelmed by heartbreak when something terrible happens in the world, but looking at those rows upon rows of flags, or the rows upon rows of white tombstones at Arlington, it seems to me that the best way to honor their sacrifice is to do all we can to try to make future such sacrifices unnecessary.
Forget anger and blame toward the many people, institutions, situations, cultural features, interests, and social mores that might lead us into war. Forget outrage and pique at those who question the circumstances that lead to these sacrifices. Forget semantic battles over what it means to be a hero. Blame doesn’t make it better. Outrage doesn’t satisfy anyone. Semantics are meaningless. Let’s take all that energy that is so often spent on blame and outrage and use it to connect and build, to take tiny steps to nurture peace in whatever ways we can.
No one wants the fields of little flags to grow.