The first time I learned the meaning of Memorial Day was May 30, 1968. That was 50 years ago this week, and it was back when the nation celebrated the solemn holiday on May 30, not on the last Monday of May as it has been since 1971. I’ve learned its lessons far too many times since.
Mark Mellor, a 19-year-old from the small Rhode Island town where I grew up, was killed in action in Quang Ngai that day in South Vietnam, three months after arriving in-country. I didn’t know Mark, but I knew his parents, well-respected in a town of just under 10,000. His father was on the town’s small police force. His mother was the lone nurse serving East Greenwich schools. In other words, pretty much every kid around knew the family. The town was shaken by the killing in the war’s deadliest year for U.S. troops, when 16,899 died. “My father never came back” from the shock of his son’s death, Mark’s older brother recalled.
Then, two months later, it happened again. Warrant Officer Charles “Larry” Callahan died at when the UH-1 Huey helicopter supplying remote GIs was shot down on July 21, 1968. He had been in Vietnam for four months and left behind a wife who gave birth to their daughter shortly after her father died. His parents lived down the street from us, and my brothers and I delivered the Providence paper to them. His mother ended up on the Town Council after her son’s death, where I covered her for the local paper. She carried, stoically, an ineffable aura of mourning just under the surface.
Every town had its Marks and Larrys, and for those of us just a little bit younger than them, it sent a powerful message about the ephemeral nature of life and duty. I came to D.C. in 1979 to cover the U.S. military, and eagerly searched for the local boys’ names the day the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened on Nov. 13, 1982. Finding their engravings brought some solace to me. I can imagine what it did for their families. That is what Memorial Day is all about: a time to acknowledge the saddest loss an American family can endure. This isn’t meant to be a litany of loss, but of remembrance. And not only of those who perished, but of those they left behind, whose pain and pride persists.
And even though Memorial Day is to honor the “fallen,” I’ve thought of it more as a day to honor all those who died while wearing the uniform. After all, they’ve all volunteered for danger since 1973, when the draft ended. Training for war has become more dangerous than actually fighting it. In 2017, nearly four times as many U.S. troops (80) died in training accidents as in combat (21). Many of them were in the prime of their life; too many others never reached it.
There have been too many military deaths on my journalistic watch. There are heartbreaking stories of soldiers who died amid war, died while in enemy hands, who died in the Army’s care, and who died at their own hands, sometimes taking their family with them. There are those who died after inadequate training, and hundreds who perished in unsafe aircraft. Some involved combat; some involved betrayal.
Then there’s fate, which often doesn’t differentiate between those in the military and the rest of us, like me, who never served. I spent time in the Pacific aboard the frigate USS Jarrett in 2000, whose skipper, Cmdr. Kathleen McGrath, was the first woman to command a U.S. Navy warship. Like so many American service personnel in recent years, service was in her blood: as a teen-ager, she had lived with her family on Guam while her father, a 29-year Air Force vet, flew B-52 bombers over Vietnam.
The year before, I had traveled to her skipper school in Newport, R.I., to convince her, and her accompanying public-affairs officer, that I wasn’t an ogre and would be the right reporter to chart her sail into history. She delighted in playing her violin in her stateroom, and by all accounts was well-respected by her crew of 262 (including three other women). It made for a great story, but it had an unhappy ending: McGrath died of cancer at 50, two years after her she broke through the Navy’s brass ceiling, leaving behind her ex-Navy husband and two small children.
Since 9/11 there have been far too many stories of service members falling through the cracks. Capt. Peter Linnerooth was an Army psychologist who served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. He earned the Bronze Star in Iraq for keeping troops from killing themselves. When he fought his superiors, who wanted to cut counseling sessions from 50 to 20 minutes, they rebuffed him. “This is a war,” they told him. “It’s led to way too much burnout,” he told me in 2010. Despite his background, he couldn’t arrest his own slide into mental illness. When he took his own life at 42 in January 2013, his survivors included his widow and three kids. I added: “He is also survived, among the hundreds he treated for the PTSD that killed him, by an unknowable number–one? two? dozens?–of the grunts he loved, whose names are known but to God.”
Lieut. Col. Dave Cabrera was another Army mental-health officer assigned to a war zone. He was trying to deal with the flood of mental-health woes in Afghanistan generated by never-ending wars and the repeated deployments they required. “We’re humbled and honored to be able to help in the ways that we can,” he’d told me in 2010. “But I’ll be completely up front with you—it’s a tough job being a caregiver.” Especially close to the front lines, like Kabul, where Cabrera, 41, died in a car bombing in 2011, leaving behind a widow and their four children.
All such deaths are tragic. But some haunt more than others. There was Air Force Lieut. Col. Mark McGeehan, so concerned by one of his B-52 pilot’s unsafe flying, that he refused to allow any of his other pilots to fly with him. So McGeehan, 38, and two other innocent officers died when the crazed pilot tried to pull a stunt in his bomber over their Washington state base in 1994. McGeehan’s wife and children witnessed the crash.
Tech. Sgt. Thomas Mueller OK’d mistakenly criss-crossed control rods while repairing an F-15. The error killed Maj. Donald Lowry when he tried to take off from their German base on May 30,1995. The Air Force ignored the confusing blueprints and refused to make them clearer in the decade before the fatal crash. It chose instead to bring Mueller before a court martial, charged with criminally negligent homicide. The military judge said the Air Force’s refusal to fix the problem before the fatal crash was not relevant in Mueller’s case. "I feel like dirt right now," Mueller wrote in his notebook shortly before his trial was set to begin. "Every second of every minute of every day, I fall apart a little more." The case, he feared, was forcing his sons to grow up too quickly: "How do I tell them how sorry I am for putting them though this?"
Mueller fled into the woods the day his trial was set to begin, a year after the crash. His father, who had just flown in from Florida to attend his son’s court martial, hunted for his son in the deep German woods. "Thomas, Poppa is here!” he pleaded over a police bullhorn into the gloaming. "Come out!” But his son couldn’t take it anymore. When Air Force searchers climbed the ladder to an elevated hunters’ shack, they found Mueller with a bullet into his brain. "I was not negligent,” he wrote. "I know I am going to heaven. And in heaven I cannot hurt anyone else, not even by accident.” The Air Force ordered changes to prevent such snafus, and dropped the case against Mueller’s fellow mechanic, who had actually made the faulty repair, in the wake of the two deaths.
Then there was Private First Class Barry Winchell, killed in 1999 with a baseball bat by a fellow soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Winchell, 21, had bested his attacker in a skirmish a day earlier during beer-soaked July 4 barracks party. Rumors that Winchell was gay fueled the vicious attack on the sleeping 101st Airborne infantryman. His mother harnessed her grief to fight for the repeal of the Pentagon’s ban on openly-gay troops.
Finally, Memorial Day is as much for the relatives of those who die as it is for their loved one. Nowhere was that made clearer to me than the case of Air Force Major Troy Gilbert, killed aboard his F-16 while trying to save American lives in Iraq in 2006. Bits of his body were recovered at the crash scene that year, and in 2012. But it took an all-hands effort by his family, over Air Force objections, to finally bring him all home, in 2016. He is the only person to have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery three times, not far from skipper Kathy McGrath.
A dwindling band of families knits all these stories together. Only 1 percent of the nation has opted to serve. That makes Memorial Day a sacred time for them to gather and recall those they’ve lost. But it’s also the right time for the rest of us, who don’t have any (s)kin in the game, to do the same.