Memories of My Own on Memorial Day

Today, only a small number of Americans have known anyone personally who died fighting for our country, but I have.  My war was the Vietnam War, and I was a Vietnam wife, so I knew quite a few.

My husband at the time did not die in Vietnam, although he certainly was keenly aware of the dangers ahead of him when he accepted his NROTC scholarship.  After he benefited from the Navy's largesse that put him through four years at Dartmouth College, he was obliged to return to the Navy the four years that they'd invested to send him there.  Very soon after graduation, our marriage, and officer's training school, he was sent to Vietnam.  He fought there as a Marine Corps captain and as a tank platoon commander for the requisite 13 months.  Seeing a lot of action and unconscious for one whole Christmas, he was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star and then came home.  There were many times afterwards that his tortured nightmares jolted us awake in the middle of the night and I thought at the time that he was dying too, a thousand little deaths, one at a time.  While I thank God he survived, our marriage, regrettably, could not.

We speak of a military death as a sacrifice given to preserve our brilliant and beloved country and our very privileged and peaceful way of life.  We envision these deaths where they most often occur - on the battlefield, as our children and neighbors and husbands are transformed into fallen heroes who fall under enemy fire and die heroically in an effort to defeat America's enemies.  But there are other deaths too, not so heroic but even more tragic and sacrificial, that occur in every war and their toll needs to be counted in the measure of whether war is worth the sacrifice we all make.

A few such deaths stand out particularly for me and I always remember their haunting images when Memorial Day rolls around.  I hesitate to discuss them on this page, as today should be a day to call forth the best feelings and courage in us all, especially in an effort to sustain us through another generation's war which we simply must see through to its successful end.  But it isn't authentic to remember only those who died as John Wayne would have died; we must remember them all.   So I now ask us to remember those Americans who have died so their country may live, though their sacrifices often go unnoticed.

One such soldier, and an old friend, suffered from a prolonged struggle with post traumatic stress syndrome following Vietnam and died by his own hand years later in front of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Right before he committed this act, he shot and killed his wife in front of their children.  Theirs was a brutal and stunning sacrifice of which many outside the military do not take notice.  But it was a tragic American family sacrifice nonetheless and they must surely both be counted, as well as their children, as among the nearly 1.3 million casualties of our wars dating back to, and including, the Civil War.  There are more of these kinds of deaths, both physical and spiritual, than we would like to acknowledge.  But these casualties need to be honored as all the others are honored, too.  They have all made the ultimate sacrifice, whether willing or not, so that we may not have to.

Innocent lives are taken in every war and are counted as collateral damage.  It is impossible for me to say with the same certainty whether this sort of sacrifice is "worth it" for the rest of us, although I think it is.  If it weren't for America and all that it does and represents, hundreds of millions across the world would not be living in peaceful societies now and many -- perhaps the person who will one day cure a dreadful disease - would not even  have been born.   Our military is used for good purposes: to protect and bring hope to the many even though the few are devastated in the process.  While others say that not one life is worth the agony of war, I know that wars fought by the United States military are carried out for the good of the world community and thus are worth it to fight and to die in if necessary.

I will never know if our friend died because of the cravenness of self-interested politicians who rendered his service futile and unworthy by pulling the plug prematurely on that highly divisive war.  I can only hope and pray that the same political mistakes will not be made this time around.  We have decades ahead of us in this war against radical Islam; let us screw up our courage and wholeheartedly support whatever presidents have to execute this war and stand firmly behind our soldiers, too, so that none of them faces the overwhelming despair that comes from confronting violence and death and returning to an ungrateful and uncaring nation.

Carol A. Taber is president of