The last Monday in May every year is a special day for most Americans, filled with barbecues, parties, and spirit-revitalizing rest and relaxation. As most know, though, the United States officially recognizes Memorial Day as the day we remember the dead who bravely and selflessly served our country.
Originally known as Decoration Day, this sacred tradition originated after the U.S. Civil War and carries on to this day.
Over time, the focus of Memorial Day has been lost or misinterpreted by many. Many individuals I’m surrounded by wish me a “happy” Memorial Day and thank me for my own service in the military and in Iraq.
For those of us who have had the opportunity to serve in U.S. combat operations, Memorial Day has a greater resonance in our memories – especially when those memories are all that remains of the brothers and sisters we served with in the military who did not return alive.
Before and during a deployment in the military, you form some of the closest bonds imaginable. Everything that you do, you do together and as a team. You experience a lot of great times and hard times as you train for combat. Your body, mind, and spirit are pushed to the limit as you train to fight the enemy in combat. There are no counselors around except the person next to you – and the “venting” that takes place pulls you all closer, just as many siblings grow closer over the years. All of the training definitely helps in preparation for combat, but it still can never completely prepare you.
Every day you execute your mission and the possibility of death is real, but you never think it could happen. Through your training, you almost have this state-of-invincibility mindset. The same mindset even carries through your first engagements – until your unit experiences its first casualty.
Earth crashes down quickly as you live through something you never forget, something you relive constantly. The sounds, smells, temperatures, and images are forever ingrained in your memories. The hardest part was after everything stopped and your mind could make sense of everything that just transpired. The problem though: the very person you would talk to about what just happened is no longer around. All that is left are memories, making nothing “happy” about Memorial Day.
Memorial Day goes far beyond our barbecues and day off. Take time to remember those families of the fallen in battle along with the actual deceased. Remember that it isn’t just a distant man or woman who died in service to this great country. There’s always a family that is left behind – a husband or a wife, a child, and possibly parents, siblings, and cousins – all of whom remember the companionship that was lost upon learning of the death of their loved one.
Take some time to remember those who sacrificed everything. Remember the fallen. Remember and reach out to those left behind. After all, all we have on Memorial Day is our memories — and each other.
Matthew D. Gryskewicz is program administrator of Pittsburgh Mercy Intervention Services and PAServes – Greater Pittsburgh. He served in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 1/107th Field Artillery from 2003-2009 and in Iraq from 2006-2007. Matt has experience in family supports, working with the criminal justice population, and veteran reintegration services. He enjoys spending time with his family, tinkering in small projects, and fishing.
If you know of a current or former military service member, veteran, or family member in need of assistance, please visit the PAServes – Greater Pittsburgh website at www.PAServes.org or call 1-855-838-7744. (Note: PAServes: Greater Pittsburgh is not a crisis service. Veterans in crisis are encouraged to call the National Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.)
Feature photo of U.S. flags in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood by Micaela Young