This isn’t going to be a very uplifting Memorial Day post. Nor is it very Pagan, except perhaps in the way that I view collective responsibility and the necessity to uphold it.

This time last year, we had just found out that my brother, a Vietnam veteran, had liver cancer. He hadn’t been getting regular screenings from the VA even though he had been exposed to Agent Orange and should have been considered high-risk. They didn’t tell him that. It was just the last in a myriad of ways that the Veteran’s Administration failed him over the last thirty-some years, the complete catalog of which is too long to recite here.

Two weeks later, he was dead. He was a casualty nearly forty years late; the war that haunted his dreams for decades finally caught up with him. It didn’t have to be that way, though. I’m still pretty mad about that.

He was the fourth of my brothers to be drafted into a war notorious for its muddled mismanagement and its human wreckage. The United States government took my brothers and sent them back to us in pieces held together by their skin. One of them, the one on the right in the picture below, has a hat that says, “We, the unwilling, did the impossible for the ungrateful.”

We have no right to send our brothers and sisters off to do our collective dirty work for any but the most carefully considered reasons, and the highest purpose. We need to make damn sure about that. And once they’ve gone and come back, we need to do right by them. Their broken bodies and broken lives are the true cost of war, and they should not bear the slightest fraction more than they have to.

My father was a combat engineer in World War II…one of the people whose cleverness and cool practical work under fire helped win the war. He used to volunteer to take out snipers on the side. When he returned, so he told me, people would ask him what it was like. He quickly learned that they didn’t really want to know. They didn’t want to hear about how, when he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, he had to walk carefully to avoid stepping on the bodies of his comrades.

If you want to honor veterans, listen to their stories…especially the ones that make you uncomfortable Don’t make them carry that burden as well. Contribute to charities that make a real difference in their lives, and pay attention when politicians vote to take away their benefits. Talk less, do more, listen more.

Disabled American Veterans

Two of my brothers during Vietnam

My father during WWII

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  • Brava!. This is an excellent article. You write, “And once they’ve gone and come back, we need to do right by them. Their broken bodies and broken lives are the true cost of war, and they should not bear the slightest fraction more than they have to.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more. My father was a Veteran of WWII and Korea and when he became ill at the end of his life, the VA all but refused to treat him. He was denied some of the care that he so desperately needed in his final month. It is shameful, just as the way we treated those returning from Vietnam was shameful. If we as a nation dont’ respect the service these men and women are providing, we don’t deserve to have it.

  • James

    I agree, we need to listen to veterans stories, they have much to tell of the horror of war, too much for one man to keep locked in his head. My father was lucky he had three sons to share his burden with, all of us soldiers too. He was with the Canadians on D-Day and had to watch as 2nd Canadian Armored landed and had to roll over the dead and wounded Canadians on the beach.

    Or the day after d-day when they had a dozen or so prisoners clearing mines and stacking them on the side of the road – one of the prisoners tripped, and suddenly they had no prisoners.

    Or a week or so later, when a souvenir hunter buddy tried to outwit the booby-traps the Nazis’ put on their dead officers, he wanted a Luger, and new the body would be trapped, so he ties a string to the pistol and jumps into a nearby trench, right on two Teller mines, the man became red mist.

    Or patrolling along the Rhone (I think, memory is s tricky thing) with Allies on one side, SS Armor on the other, his stomach tied in knots waiting for an 88 round to come out of the dark, mile after mile, for eight nights in a row.

    Luckily, my father survived the war, intact in mind and body and lived till his 80’s before his toughness killed him – he ignored a massive anterior myocardial infarction thinking it was just arthritis in his shoulder for 6 months! We still miss our family RSM.

    Truly the burden a soldier carries is a heavy one, most of us who volunteer understand that, and because of that understand why this burden is so much the heavier for the conscripted; it wasn’t their choice.

    My condolences to you and your family.