When Memorial Day becomes personal

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by Michal Ann McArthur
Bend, Oregon

Officially, Memorial Day is a day to remember and honor those in the military who have given their lives in the service of our country. For most of my life, I haven’t given the day the proper attention and respect it deserves. Part of my neglect might be understandable. I was born on May 31, so my birthday usually coincides with the long weekend. When I was a child, Memorial Day meant birthday fun and a break from school. I was that naïve.

But even as an adult, I haven’t had much personal connection to Memorial Day. My uncle fought as a paratrooper in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. My brother-in-law served in the navy, and my nephew did a tour of duty in Iraq. Thankfully, all came home safely. The closest I ever came to a personal loss was when a high school classmate died in the Vietnam War. But I barely knew him. On Memorial Days, I felt grateful as I sang the National Anthem with my hand over my heart, mentally acknowledging the huge debt of gratitude I owe to all those who serve.

But I wasn’t impacted on a gut level.

All of that changed on December 9, 2008. On that day, the son of dear friends, Sgt. Zachary Wade McBride, was killed in Sinsil, Iraq. In a house he and his team were searching, a rigged IED exploded. Zack was twenty years old.

He left behind two shattered parents and one shattered sister, plus countless shattered relatives and friends. I am one of those friends. When someone dies like this, the ripple effects are so far-reaching we as a nation probably can’t begin to comprehend the extent of the loss, but I know it’s staggering. Five other soldiers were killed that day along with one Iraqi, a young boy serving as their translator. This means that seven families and countless relatives and friends were all shattered by that single explosion. Multiply this loss by thousands to get some sense of the massive cost of war.

Since that awful day, Memorial Day had taken on a whole new meaning for me. When Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, he solemnly noted that meeting together to remember the dead was “altogether fitting and proper.” I agree with him. Parties and picnics and car races are all fine, but I don’t think we should allow these activities to overshadow the true meaning of the day. Let’s take some time for sober reflection. Let’s honor those who have died serving our country. Let’s give the day the respect it should have. I’ll probably think about Zack every Memorial Day for the rest of my life.

Soldiers like him deserve to be remembered.