On May 31, 2004, I experienced the eye-opening honor of attending a Memorial Day celebration on a U.S. military base in a combat zone during a war.
Looking back at my notes and writings that week, I was reminded how similar that day was to the celebrations we will enjoy on Monday — and how different. It had all the hot dogs and hamburgers and ice cream associated with a peacetime backyard barbecue, but also a tremendous gravitas and dignity.
And sadness, too.
We were at a base called Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, a massive and comfortable American military installation that had been growing in the desert since 1999 and featured a swimming pool, gyms and fast-food outlets, including Burger King and Nathan’s Hot Dogs.
Most of the soldiers there had either just left Iraq or were about to rotate there. I had just come from a month in Baghdad and would head back “up north,” as some called returning to the real danger zone, in a few weeks. Kuwait was a strange vibe for the soldiers stationed there: seemingly as safe as Iowa but just a quick C-130 flight or Humvee caravan away from a place where they might die, and where some of their comrades already had.
So Memorial Day there was serious — potato salad and all.
Arifjan held its ceremony in the base’s crowded pavilion. The facility housed thousands and it seemed like they were all on hand. The event didn’t start until after sundown, probably because in Kuwait in late May standing outside during daylight hours feels as if 600 people are pointing hair dryers at every part of your body.
Around 7:30 p.m. a military choir composed of members of the various forces sang “Honor to Serve,” and flags for every service branch were presented. Then came, in solemn rigidity, the national anthem followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Every man and woman there, including members of the British and Australian and Polish armed forces, stood at attention and every American recited in perfect unison.
A military chaplain, a man of religion first and a soldier second, asked God to “cure your children’s warring madness.”
A colonel said of the event, “This is a night of necessity.”
And then they handed the evening off to Sgt. Jennifer Payne, a member of the 375th Transportation Group, who recited a poem she wrote in honor of the members of her unit who had been killed in Iraq, as photos of the dead were projected on to an enormous screen behind her.
She spoke to pindrop silence, and that quiet continued through the bagpiper’s “Amazing Grace” and the desolate horn delivering “Taps.” And the quiet continued even after that, as the crowd broke up, as people grabbed bowls of ice cream or wandered off to their tents.
There is sometimes confusion about Memorial Day, and people seem to lump it in with other holidays in their minds. It is not a day to honor the service of all our nation’s veterans: that is Veterans Day. And it is not a day to honor the wonder of all our nation’s two-for-one specials and “blockbuster bonanza” sales: that is every day.
It is very specifically a day to honor those members of the military who died in the service of our nation.
In a country without a draft the danger and necessity of such service, for many, is remote. Serving in the military has become uncommon, especially among the privileged.
That’s probably a mistake. Such service ought to be universal and unavoidable.
If we are going to be a nation that continues to wage war, it would behoove us to be a nation that understands Memorial Day at a gut level.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.