Editor’s note: This Memorial Day, we honor the sacrifices made by men and women in the military — as well as others whose service and sacrifice is equally worthy of recognition, even if it wasn’t done in military uniform.
There’s a movement in some quarters to expand the roster of those honored on Memorial Day beyond the veterans of formally declared wars. My uncle returned from World War II a decorated bomber pilot for 24 completed missions, and my father, his younger brother, came back shell-shocked and on the brink of ruin.
But for me, it takes nothing away from their sacrifices to honor others this day who suffered and/or died to make a better world, even if they didn’t do it in uniform. Who would begrudge the victims in the Twin Towers a place among those being remembered today because they were civilians, or the Port Authority police officers and the firefighters because their uniforms weren’t military?
It’s a good and a powerful day to remember every ilk of brave men and women who have suffered and died serving others. It’s also recognition that war, while still awful, has changed. It’s now more frequently about non-state actors and manifestos than kings, presidents, and formal declarations.
Dad and his brother, Wilfred, are always especially close to me today, but so is a roster of wounded and fallen humanitarian workers, my colleagues over almost 25 years now.
Dad and Uncle Wilfred fought in Europe to halt a tyrant and turn back the night. Aid workers risk and sacrifice to extend the boundaries of choice and opportunity by caring and helping. Many die. Close friends, as well as some colleagues I love though I’ve never met them, have been murdered because humanitarian basics ran counter to the “end-serves-the-means” extremists.
Others have limped home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because they ignored warning signs and judged flood, famine, and war victims more needful than themselves. I had PTSD. It was the unarticulated bond Dad and I shared in an otherwise often-strained relationship.
But he suffered and overcame in a time when there was no PTSD diagnosis, and consequently, no treatment. In a more aware era, I got lots of help. It gave me a special respect for a man whose greatest accomplishments were not during the war but because of it. He became a corporate vice president despite never completing high school. Still, he considered his two greatest achievements to be his two children.
Uncle Wilfred, a quiet man, only talked about his Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) if you knew to ask. When I interviewed him for our family history, he told me something that made me as proud as all the family was two years ago when he was noticed in a crowd in his Canadian hometown by Prince Philip for the DFC around his neck, and then introduced to Queen Elizabeth.
His last three flights had been humanitarian missions, dropping food on the Netherlands because retreating German troops had taken all and left the Dutch to starve.
He described ant-like figures lined up to take the food home in wheelbarrows and baby carriages. I shared that story with a Dutch woman in her 80s on a flight to Amsterdam some years ago. She looked me hard in the eyes and said, “I remember that food.”
It gave me chills and made me proud — of Dad, Uncle Wilfred, and my colleagues. You are remembered.