Despite what some may think, I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook. I include my daily blog as part of my early morning routine, but I don’t generally scan the horizon for tidbits of this or that. I simply don’t have the time. At least, until this week, I haven’t had time. Maybe with retirement comes more time.
It was simply by happenstance that the posting immediately prior to one I posted a couple of days ago caught my attention. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and this one spoke volumes. Just seeing the picture left a lump in my throat. It would have left a lump in my throat even if I hadn’t known the mother and father in this photograph, but I knew this family.
The picture was unmistakable. It was a Kodak moment capturing the worst possible of days in any parent’s life. A triangular folded American flag was being presented to a grieving mother whose face had temporarily aged beyond her years. Her countenance didn’t reflect the joy and smile that is generally characteristic. Yet, with dignity and a sense of patriotic pride she represented strength even in the midst of great difficulty.
Whether it was purposeful or otherwise, I do not know. I do know that the picture carried with it a patriotic “God Bless America” theme. The mother’s red blouse, the white pearls and the navy blue blazer spoke an undeniable message. The colors were the same as those in the flag being presented. It, too, was red, white and blue. Of the flag, it is said that the white signifies purity and innocence, the red, hardiness and valor and the blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice.
Sgt. Garrett I. McLead, age 23, was one of fourteen soldiers who died in a helicopter crash in Multaka, Iraq on August 22, 2007. The soldiers were between the ages of 20 and 30 years old. They hailed from 11 states, spanning from California to Massachusetts. Sgt. McLead joined the army following graduation from high school in 2002 motivated by the 9/11 act of terrorism against our Nation. Out of his love for God and country, he responded to the need. He served in Afghanistan from 2004-2005 and began his tour in Iraq in 2006.
It is in Sgt. McLead’s honor and memory that I dedicate today’s Memorial Day posting and to that of his family. Like I said, “A picture is worth a thousand words and this one spoke volumes”. Patrick McLead added only the notation to his Facebook posting: “THIS is what Memorial Day is about”.
I actually didn’t know the McLead family had become a Gold Star family until several years ago when I officiated at the wedding of one of Sgt. McLead’s cousins. It was then that Patrick shared with me the sad news concerning his son. It hurt my heart. At the time of their loss, the family was living in Rockport. They now live in Johnson City.
I guess at some level, unless a person experiences the loss of a family member through harms way while serving in the military, it is difficult for us to wrap our head around the process of grief up close and personal. Consequently, Memorial Day for most signal the beginning of summer and the first three-day holiday weekend. Most reserve it for a quick weekend trip filled with barbeque, shared laughter with family and friends and a respite from a typical five-day work-week. They are oblivious to the heartfelt meaning of Memorial Day.
For folks like Patrick and Patti McLead, it is something very different. Memorial Day carries with it a sense of something sacred. It is so significant that it needs to be wrapped in memories too precious to forget. It isn’t about a holiday or shared time with family and friends and barbeque, it is a time of reflection and remembering and honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Patrick and Patti have become seasoned veterans in honoring their son’s memory and moving forward with their lives. Yet each step they take is somehow altered by the memory of what could have been. I know that is true becasue it is a universal characteristic of all such families. How well I know.
Yet it is the families for whom Memorial Day 2017 has only come to have heart felt significance in the recent past that concern me most. My heart goes out to families who have not yet reached the place where memory is a treasured gift. Currently every thought related to their husband or wife, son or daughter, brother or sister, uncle or aunt, family member or friend seems directly connected to the details associated with separation, loss and unrelenting pain.
The price of freedom isn’t free and when a loved one’s life seems prematurely taken, the sense of grief is overwhelming. Perhaps that is one of the motivating factors associated with the origin of Memorial Day or Decoration Day as it was originally called.
“In April 1863, in Columbus, Mississippi, after decorating graves of her two sons who died representing their beloved south-land, an elderly woman walked to two mounds of dirt at the corner of the cemetery to place memorial flowers there also. ‘What are you doing?’ friends shouted, ‘Those are the graves of two union soldiers.’ Softly that compassionate mother said, ‘I know. I also know that somewhere in the North, a mother or a young wife mourns for them as we do for ours.’”
Memorial Day has its roots all the way back to the Civil War. I have toured the battlefield at Gettysburg three times in the past five or six years. Reportedly, it is the site of the most costly of the battles. The location is very picturesque and today reflects such serenity. How did it ever become a battlefield reflecting so much sorrow? What capacity we have to destroy that which we have been given.
In the course of three days, 160,000 soldiers engaged in battle. When it was over 51,000 were killed. Unbelievable! Total casualties from the Civil War totaled 620,000. In case you missed it, that was Americans killing Americans.
For the past two years I’ve had the privilege of conducting a workshop on grief at the POW/MIA League of Families annual meeting in Washington D.C. Wanting the workshop to be interactive, at some point, I paused to ask two questions:
- How old were you when you learned your loved one was Missing In Action?
- How long has it been since you’ve given thought to how that loss has impacted you personally?
Of course, no one was required to answer the questions, but I was surprised by the ones that did. In the process of answering, several found that they could not. They were blindsided by emotions that left a lump in their throat and tears in their eyes. For all of them, their loved one had died or had been listed as POW/MIA over 44 years before.
Memorial Day isn’t a one size fits all kind of experience. It has more to do with one’s life experiences and the people who are now on the other side of eternity and what their absence has meant to those who celebrate all that they have been given.
In looking back over the four decades since the loss of my brother, I can truthfully say that at no point have I been a stranger to God’s grace. Across the last four decades, I have experienced and re-experienced every possible range of emotion. Through it all, I’ve never experienced it in isolation.
Subsequently, I have discovered what a treasured gift memory becomes. Somehow, with the passing of time, memories become more precious and less painful. Memory serves as a catalyst prompting a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving for the times shared. How wonderful it is to remember the joy of my brother’s presence and the gift of love that memory supplies.
Several years ago, Clif Martin, a dear friend, Vietnam veteran and former supervisor, sent me the following note:
“I’m glad we still have Memorial Day in America. I fly the American Flag everyday at my house. As I write this, it is raining. You are supposed to take it down when it rains, but today I am not – a symbolic gesture in my screwed up head- like the flag stands tall even when wet, cold and windblown. It droops as though bowing in prayer. Yet it stands tall even when wet, cold and wind blown.
It is Memorial Day and will fly all day regardless of the weather, just as our memories continue as well. As the flag drops, a gust of wind blows. It flaps and sheds the wetness and once again is waving and standing out, just as we should.
After the rain is over the sun will come out, the flag with dry and be warm again much like God’s promise and the flag will fly again tomorrow fully dry and straight.
– Clif Martin”
All My Best!