I had the honor of attending and photographing the 2016 Memorial Day Celebration - sponsored by the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation - in Santa Barbara, California this past Monday (May 30). Held at the Santa Barbara Cemetery - this event was attended by hundreds of military veterans and their families. The Santa Barbara Cemetery is a beautiful location - set on a high bluff over the Pacific Ocean with wonderful views of the mountains and ocean.
Memorial Day is a National/Federal Holiday which the men and women who have given their lives in service of their country as members of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and the various military branches of the past) are remembered and honored. Unlike Veteran's Day - which gives thanks to the living members of Armed Forces (past and present) - Memorial Day is reserved for those who have lost their lives while serving actively.
ABOVE - Veterans from all of the various branches of military whose service has spanned the past 72 years of wars and conflicts donned their uniforms and came to bare witness to their fallen brothers and sisters in arms.
ABOVE - 72 years ago on D-Day (June 6th, 1944) a young Army private (a member of the Army's 101st Airborne Division) named Arthur "Art" Petersen (far right) jumped with 299 other men out of Douglass C-47 Dakota troop transports several miles inland from the beaches at Normandy, France and became an important part of the history of the "Greatest War Ever Fought". D-Day marked a historic turn in the war against Nazi Germany and the Axis Forces in Europe. 72 years later Art is the last living member of his company; he's the last of those 300 brave men who jumped into the unknown to fight an evil unlike anything the World had seen before. Petersen was a member of "Fox Company" - who fought next to the now famous "Band of Brothers" as Allied Forces drove deeper into Europe to fight the Nazis. 10,000 American Soldiers lost their life on June 6th, 1944; a sobering statistic when you consider that Coalition Forces have lost approximately 5,000 soldiers in over 15 years of fighting in the Middle East - twice that number was lost in Normandy in a single day.
What is striking about Memorial Day is that so many of the veterans who have survived combat and war feel compelled to come forward and share their stories of fallen comrades as a way to honor their sacrifice. It's also never lost on me that regardless how much time has passed the emotion (and often pain) of these memories is just as fresh as the day they happened.
From all walks of life, every possible ethic background, descended from countless different nationalities, the men and women who have served in the Armed Forces come together to pay tribute to their friends who paid the ultimate price fighting for the freedoms that so many Americans take for granted.
There is one thing these men and women have in common; they survived their service while many of the men and women they served with did not. Since the formation of the United States in 1776 - there have only been 21 years where the US was not involved in a war. The longest period of "peace" was the 5 year stint between 1935 and 1940 (the Great Depression and the "Isolationist" period leading up to World War II). In all fairness many US historians might argue that "The Cold War" wasn't a war and that "The Vietnam War" wasn't a war because Congress never declared war - thus it is often referred to as a "conflict"; but in reality when you look at armed conflicts there is rarely a year that goes by that the United States military does not engage in some activity that leads to the death of service men and women. For the purpose of my observations regarding the affect of combat on those who survive it while losing members of their units (and how they carry an emotional burden of remembrance); it is fair to say that the US has engaged in military operations on domestic (the numerous Indian Wars between 1776 - The Second Cherokee War - and the 1913 New Mexico Navajo War) and/or foreign soil almost continuously since declaring independence and becoming a country.
Regardless your political beliefs or feelings regarding US Foreign Policy - the men and women who volunteer to risk their lives to fight for the principles that the United States was founded on - "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" - these men and women carry the weight of our hopes and dreams on their shoulders.
The truth is that politicians and governments engage in war; soldiers fight and die because they are ordered to. We could debate what is right and just - and honestly for those who are against wars and military invasions I am right there with you - but after witnessing first hand the lasting emotional and psychological trauma experienced by those who are ordered to fight (and possibly die) I cannot fault the soldier.
I grew up with a dad who was a decorated Vietnam Veteran. My dad was drafted - he wasn't given a choice regarding his involvement in Vietnam. In truth he told me many times that once he was there he decided that hell probably would have been a vacation and if he gave up he'd not survive. So the only thing he could do was fight and try his best to survive.
My dad hated the reasons for our involvement in Vietnam despite having served 3 combat tours and suffered a near fatal battle wound. He was completely against the war and did not believe the US government had any justification for being there but because he had sworn an oath to faithfully carry out his orders and do as he was told he fought and bled. He experienced things that gave him nightmares the rest of his life. He lost friends and returned to a divided country where his service was resented and hated openly by many. I understand the seeming illogical dichotomy of the "hate the war but love the soldier" philosophy that is a direct result of the overwhelmingly negative experience that Vietnam Veterans experienced.
In today's voluntary military you'll see a large number of enlisted servicemen and women have joined because the military offers a doorway to a better life. There are few options for young adults in impoverished, economically depressed rural and inner-city neighborhoods to better themselves; military service is often the ONLY option.
Likewise with all of the political talk about illegal immigration this Presidential cycle ZERO media outlets (that I have watched) have taken time to mention that many current US citizens have earned their legal citizen status by serving in the US military. The Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) allows people born in other countries to gain U.S. citizenship through military service; in some cases without going through the usual preliminary step of getting a U.S. green card. I personally know several US citizens who came to be such through military service. And MANY of my friends who have come here from other countries and worked hard to earn their citizenship are FAR BETTER citizens than a majority of the natural born citizens I know. They truly love this country and appreciate the opportunities they've been given. And THIS is one of the founding principles that the US was built upon.
For me, personally, Memorial Day is about remembering and honoring the memory of the men and women who gave their lives - sacrificing their futures - in defense of ideals and principles which are the foundation from which this country was founded.
I take part in Memorial Day to remember my dad and to honor the good, caring person he was. He wasn't proud of his military service, quite the opposite - for many years he was ashamed of the orders he was forced to carry out and he never talked about his years fighting in Vietnam. What is obvious to me is that regardless of the political reasoning for that war his military service was a major force in shaping him into the unwavering good man I knew him to be. As I grew older he started to open up and share his experiences with me and I understood the unimaginable burden he felt obligated to carry.
My dad grew to deeply regret his participation in Vietnam - for as he once told me - "They had their own values and traditions and to them WE were the invaders who had come to force a way of life they did not want. War is never one-sided and right and wrong is often only defined by which side of a line you are standing on any given day."
I learned through him that in truth the best voice for the fallen is found through those who have survived and are able to tell their stories; men and women who were forced to make hard choices and live with the guilt and haunting nightmares those choices bore - so we can all have dreams of living better lives for ourselves - a burden they carry with solemn dignity and an indomitable sense of honor.
It is a humbling experience - once you put away your personal notions of political right and wrong and listen to their stories from no other perspective than as a human being. To hear the pain and hurt - to see the tears that are shed - to realize that these men and women endured unimaginable pain (physical and emotional) for the love of our country and the principles for which it stands; you realize what an incredible sacrifice they have made for us all.