Have a Thoughtful Memorial Day

Two days I remember:  the day our legislators gave “W” the authority to take us to war in Iraq, and the day that “W” announced that he was doing just that.  I always knew that he would rush into war if he had the opportunity.  I also knew that he would rush in with a heroic, John Wayne machismo, waving flags and proclaiming our superiority and Christian duty. 


I knew what war was before I was in kindergarten.  My father went for his first tour of duty in Korea, and I knew that sometimes people’s fathers came back with an arm or leg missing, and sometimes they didn’t come back at all.  My dad sent us postcards with drawings of the dogs and houses that he saw, and my mother or an older sister read them to my younger sister and me.  It finally came time for him to return home.  The night before he arrived, I slept with my head under the covers.  I was afraid to see him.  I thought that he would be missing some important part.  I stayed frightened of amputees and crippled people for the next two years.


It is Memorial Day weekend.  There’s a lot of vacationing and barbecuing going on, and I imagine a lot of drinking, too.  I haven’t been to a parade or military ceremony since my last visit to Washington, D.C. nine years ago, but Memorial Day and Armed Forces Day always catch my attention.  They make me remember what my daddy went through in 28 years of military service, including the memories that he won’t discuss.  The first person that I knew who died in war was a young man named Paul Short.  He and his wife were adopted by my parents in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri.  My folks invited them over many times, and played surrogate grandparents to their baby daughter.  I remember the family well.  When we got the news of Paul’s death in Vietnam, we were all heartbroken.  His photo is still on my parents’ refrigerator.  I was 10 years old when he died.  I looked him up on the Vietnam Memorial page today, and told my father that I found him and that I’d show him Paul’s memorial page there.


I had a wonderful time with my knitting friends this morning and followed that with a relaxed salon visit, getting my hair shampooed and cut.  On the way home, WUTC was playing the Bob Edwards Show.  The topic today was a medical unit in Vietnam.  Several physicians and medics were describing their experiences in the primitive, ill-equipped triage and emergency surgery station in the jungle.  Most of them choked up and cried during their stories.  Their memories were terrible reminders of the savagery of war and the inhuman level of denial that one must adopt in order to survive and be productive in war zone situations.   One physician described the two physicians he worked with who “decompensated” and could not continue their work. 


There were times in medicine when I felt I was in a war zone, usually because of either of two circumstances.  There were times when I lost many people in succession, some of them very close to me.  There were also times when I lost patients who were very young, comparable to the ages of the combat deaths one would see in war.  Obviously I never had to work in the kinds of circumstances that the medical personnel in Vietnam endured, but there are times when the work was brutal enough to remind me that the course I had chosen wasn’t a walk in the park. 


It’s hard to know how much you can say about a job like that.  The doctors and medics on the show I listened to were describing incidents and patients from 40 years ago.  I wonder if they had spoken of those things in the interim, if they could talk to their wives or their friends or their old military buddies.  Maybe this is why we congregate among those of our profession, so that we have a safe, empathetic ear for our war stories. 


I am always indignant when someone questions my patriotism.  Patriotism and pride in our country have nothing to do with accepting war.  Broken, maimed, dead-too-soon bodies are bad enough when they are the natural consequence of life on earth.  It’s intolerable to me that we deliberately send our people off to unnecessary, unjustified war, to join them.  Have a thoughtful Memorial Day.