Until 2005, Memorial Day was just another holiday, a day off from work, and a sign of the first days of summer vacation. I was not exposed to the military growing up aside from stories that my grandfather had been wounded during the Battle of the Bulge in Germany during World War II. Though I had been married to my Marine for several years in 2005, war had not hit us close to home, at least not yet.
On September 11, 2001, we had just moved to the Washington, D.C. area for work. We had been there just short of a month. My husband was on his way to the Pentagon to get his hair cut, and I had dropped my son at day care. On my way out the door, the receptionist said, “Turn on the news when you get home. A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” Like many Americans, I watched the second plan hit from my living room. I stood in silence as my younger son played at my feet. My phone rang and I heard my husband’s voice on the other end, panicked through his muted tone, “Get (our son) and stay in the basement. Wait there until I get home.”
I replied, equally calm, equally panicked, “Don’t go to the Pentagon. I have a bad feeling.”
Shortly after September 11, I took a job at a Marine Corps base perched atop a hill overlooking the Pentagon and adjacent to Arlington Cemetery. For the next year, I watched as the cranes and crews slowly rebuilt the structure while the country tried to rebuild from the tragedy. On the one-year anniversary, I dropped off my son at the child development center on Bolling Air Force Base, which is located just on the other side of the Anacostia River, near downtown D.C. Eyeing the surface-to-air missile that had been positioned at the back of the center, I asked the center manager how I would access the base to pick up my kids if we were attacked. “You don’t. We have enough food and water here to feed the center children for two days. If the base is locked down, even parents will not be allowed access.”
The underlying concern for our safety lingered throughout our time in D.C. We raised our children under guard and gun, and when my husband received orders to an infantry battalion in California in 2005, we knew he would deploy to Iraq shortly after we arrived. One afternoon, my husband and I sat among the boxes in our new house on Camp Pendleton discussing who would raise our children should if we both passed, where he wanted to be buried if he were killed in combat, and whether all the powers of attorney were in place. I had convinced myself he was not coming home alive, a fear that would escalate a few days later.
Seven days after we moved in, my husband was already on a ship, floating off the coast of California in preparation for his deployment. It was late in the afternoon and I sat on the playground watching my kids pick through the bark floor while chatting up their new friends. One of my neighbors came to me with a broken tone in his voice. He kneeled down to where I was sitting and softly murmured, “I need you to keep this little boy outside. The casualty officer is here to tell his mom that his father has been killed in Iraq.” The boy was the same age as my oldest son.
For the next nine months while my husband was deployed, I watched their family struggle from two doors down. I eyed the yellow ribbon magnet on their car everyday as I left the house. “Keep my daddy safe.” Looking back, I can say that despite my years of working and volunteering in the Marine Corps community, hearing the stories, and knowing that some Marines really didn’t come home, nothing could have prepared me for those days.
One morning, I browsed the internet and found that our battalion had lost six Marines. I had not heard from my husband in more than two weeks. Despite the 24-hour window of notification, I remember being frozen in fear over those next few days, terrified each time I turned the corner on my street. I scanned for cars I did not recognize in fear that someone was waiting to deliver the dreaded news when I got home, just like what had happened to my neighbor.
Eventually, my husband made it home safely, but not before losing the company commander he was attached to and a close friend from the battalion. While he fought, I attended the commander’s funeral, and quietly grieved with the other wives in the unit.
Straining through tears at a Denny’s restaurant that next Memorial Day, I tried to explain the true meaning of the day to my boys. I certainly had plenty of material. However, nothing can prepare you for having to explain war to your children, especially when they know their daddy is still in harm’s way. We got through it the best way we knew how…together. To date, it was the longest nine months of my life.
The three years we spent in the operating forces before moving to our current duty station opened my eyes to Memorial Day. It is not about backyard barbeques or summer vacation. It is about remembering what we have lost and celebrating the sacrifice those individuals made to secure our safety. It is about teaching our children to appreciate our veterans and that brave men and woman and their families who have come before us have scarified in many of the ways we have. On this Memorial Day, as you enjoy the time off with family; remember that this day of remembrance is about recognizing our fallen heroes and all of the veterans, past and present, who have served and sacrificed for our country.