Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor our war dead, grew out of the aftermath of the carnage of the Civil War and traditionally was observed on May 30th. Ever since the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90-363) it has been celebrated on the last Monday in May.
U.S. service deaths since the start of the Iraq war stand at 3,452. I saw several graphic reminders of the incalculable human cost of the conflict while running in the last Army Ten-Miler. Several soldiers were completing the race as part of their rehabilitation from gruesome battle injuries, unsteadily progressing down the road between military escorts, forcing their maimed bodies, often missing parts of multiple limbs, onwards towards the finish line.
Here is how the recently departed novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a WWII veteran who was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, described getting shot at in his autobiographical anti-war book, Slaughterhouse-Five:
"The third bullet was for [the protagonist Billy Pilgrim], who stopped dead center in the road when the lethal bee buzzed past his ear. Billy stood there politely, giving the marksman another chance. The next shot missed Billy's knees by inches, going end-on-end, from the sound of it. Roland Weary and the scouts were safe in a ditch, and Weary growled at Billy, 'Get out of the road, you dumb motherfucker.' It woke Billy up up and got him off the road."
My brother was a machine gunner in a Marine regimental combat team in 1982 when Ronald Reagan sent his unit ashore in Lebanon in an attempt to impress the Sryians, whose proxy the PLO was battling the Israelis there. When a suicide bomber blew up a Marine barracks a year later and killed 242 sleeping Marines, Reagan wisely withdrew the troops from an untenable situation. The Marines at the time were mere peacekeepers. My brother described getting shot at.
My brother was taking a sponge-bath one night, standing in the dark beside a well-used waterhole behind Marine lines. Looking up at the lights of the apartment buildings terracing away from him on the hillside opposite, he heard a shot. This in itself wasn't unusual in Lebanon. A split-second later he felt the pressure of airwaves passing close by his ear as a bullet whizzed past his head, a nearly-spent round at the end of its effective range. He quit bathing and spent the rest of the night hunkering down in his hole out of sight of the hillside beyond.
My father, a WWII marine, had a bathing story as well that he told me when I was a spellbound child asking him about his combat experiences. On Peleliu, he said, he went to the river alone one day intending to bathe. As he rounded the last turn to the river he spotted six Japanese soldiers in full combat gear standing on the bank. They spotted him at the same time. Startled, the two sides stared at each other. All my dad had with him besides his towel was a bar of soap.
At this point, my father paused in his account, obviously lost in a far-away reverie. "What happened?" I asked breathlessly. My father shook his head reproachfully at the memory. "They all got away." There was a twinkle in his eye that even a little boy could see.
I want to remember the following men whom I knew personally:
(The Price by Tom Lea, depicting the landings at Peleliu on September 15, 1944. Published in the June 11, 1945 issue of Life magazine.)
My father, a marine who fought on Peleliu and Okinawa.
Uncle Bill, an officer in the Army who suffered injuries requiring hospitalization while conducting operations against the Japanese in the Philippines.
Uncle Bob, in the Army Air Corps who flew a B-25 bomber in the Mediterranean Theater.
Billy, in the Coast Guard and present at D-Day.
I want to thank the following men whom I know personally:
Uncle Harry, a Marine officer who saw Naval combat from the Philippines to Japan.
Sy, in the Army and aboard a ship on D-Day, present at the Battle of the Bulge, injured on the last day of the war in Europe.
Running update: Yesterday, getting ready for this relay race in two weeks, I ran for the first time since Wednesday's "memorial run" on the Mall. I went ten miles out and back EB on the W&OD Trail in 1:26:26 (8:39). My left leg is sore again but I am capable, obviously, of running my assigned 9.6 mile first-leg of the relay.
Later this morning I am running in the Falls Church Memorial Day 3K Fun Run. It's a flat, free, self-timed race starting at 9 am from the Community Center with no winners and losers and a free T-shirt at the end, courtesy of former Lt. Governor Don Beyers. Except for the DC Race For The Cure next Saturday, it'll be my last race before the Lake Tahoe Relay on June 9th.