Reclaiming Memorial Day: Can We Make It Real Without Being Touched by Loss?

Memorial Day became real for me on October 2, 2009, when a high school friend, Captain Benjamin Sklaver, was killed while serving in Afghanistan, the victim of a suicide bomber. Before Memorial Day 2010, the day was a mix of half remembered parades, three-day weekends, and the life cycle events planned when everyone is off work. It was the summer denoting bank holiday rightfully lamented by commentators nationwide.  That Memorial Day, the sacrifice of our nation’s heroes came home, and now the day is never quite the same.

Ben and I were not super close, he was a senior to my freshman. In fact, I had closer friendships with his younger brother Sam, who was my age, and his parents, Gary and Laura, whose Hamden Connecticut house became a home away from home when I was unable to return home from Yale for the holidays. As such, I cannot say that I felt the deep personal pain of losing a close friend.

Neither, however, had I only the generic admiration and respect for a man whose heroic and tragic story was held up as an example in Time magazine, and who, though he died at the age I am now, had served his country, found love, and founded the Clear Water Initiative, an organization that continues saving and improving lives almost 5 years after his passing (direct donation link here). After all, in this Internet connected age, we often learn the moving narratives of our fallen heroes.

Rather, it is the death of a hero made personal. When I think Ben’s sacrifice, I experience it through the memory of our first meeting. I was in the eighth grade, and Ben was taking over a Jewish leadership position from my sister, Shira, who was a graduating senior. As Shira came out to meet my school van, I saw framed in the door what seemed to me to be an impossibly tall, grinning fellow. Shira told that this was Ben, who would be the religious and cultural vice president when I joined our region of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) in the fall. I remember seeking out Ben that fall, and feeling cool because I knew one of the officers. I remember when he, and the other officers, made me feel included when, sometimes, as a 12-year-old kid in a wheelchair, I felt a little left out.

These few moments are the sum total of my memories of Ben, but they make his sacrifice real and poignant for me in a way that 1 million moving tales of heroism cannot. The grinning silhouette in my doorway becomes the face of the fallen hero.

I think that the impersonal nature of loss is probably what drives the move from somber Memorial Day observance to a focus on picnics, barbecues, and life cycle events. Leaving aside a commentary on the corrosive force of commercialism, and the loss of symbolic power in favor of a three-day weekend, sacrifice takes on a different dimension when the loss is personal.

As we are about to complete our 13th year of ongoing combat operations, far too many of us are gaining those personal connections, and I rejoice rather than lament for those whose lives have not been so touched. That said, I wonder if we can capture a sense of connection by a slight change in perspective.

A friend posted a Facebook reminder that Memorial Day was for those who did not come home, while Veterans Day was for those who did. Surely this is an accurate distinction, and yet, I wonder, can we meet our very human need for real connection to our fallen, even through those who came home?

During my time as a member of the National Council on Disability, I was privileged to serve in a civilian capacity with Captain Lonnie Moore (U.S. Army, retired) and Captain Jonathan Kuniholm, (United States Marine Corps, retired). Captains Moore and Kuniholm obviously survived their time in the military, and have thrived in civilian life. Yet, both sustained serious battlefield injuries, and have permanent disabilities.

Though I have never asked, I assume that, having been in such heated combat, they lost comrades and, but for the grace of God and modern technology, might well have lost their lives. As Captain Moore reminded me today, for all intents and purposes, he did die, only to be revived by yet another form of heroism, the service of our medical doctors.
As I hear of fallen heroes, can I be empathetic enough to realize how easily that could have been my friends and colleagues, Jon and Lonnie? Can I link the memories of their comrades to my memories of them much as I described with Ben? I would like to think so.

Many of us are blessed not to have lost a friend or loved one in service to our country. And yet, after 13 years at war, almost all of us have had meaningful interaction with someone who served. Just last week, I had an x-ray from an x-ray technician who was an Army veteran who told me of his service and I opened a bank account under the helpful guidance of a young branch supervisor who told me of his recently completed naval service. Connections abound.

So, as we look this Memorial Day at the stories of our fallen heroes, can we take just a moment to understand their similarity to the veterans among our family, friends and neighbors? Can we use those common bonds to personalize their sacrifice, and maybe to make Memorial Day real for us? How about we just try?


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