My Memorial Day weekends typically have involved marching in the annual parade in my community, giving a speech on the necessity of remembering those who fell protecting our freedoms, writing speeches for other speakers, or heading up the Buddy Poppy sales for my local veterans organizations.
We usually have a cookout at the Winter household, because we also acknowledge that it is the informal beginning of the summer season and we love to indulge in our hard won freedoms by doing what we like to do. And I always, ALWAYS, remember my brother Marines, those I served with in Medium Helicopter Squadron 161 – HMM-161 – who died in Vietnam, or afterward.
This year there will be no speeches or parades for me. I can't march after being injured in an auto collision three years ago, suffering debilitating back injuries as a result. I won't be doing speeches, partly because of the same reason, but also because I am up to my eye teeth in getting ready for a reunion of the remaining members of my helicopter squadron. These are the people I served with in New River, North Carolina in '66 and '67, and who took part in our historic flight from North Carolina to California in April 1968, and on from there to Quang Tri, Vietnam.
And herein for me is the true meaning of Memorial Day this year. One of my reunion planning jobs has been contacting people who served with us so long ago, informing them of the coming reunion and getting information out to them. There were approximately 200 Marines in our squadron when we landed in Vietnam, and in past reunions roughly half of them have attended.
During our tour we lost 20 Marines out of the 200 in combat, dozens more were wounded, and over the years our numbers have been whittled down due to the deaths of many of our leaders, most of whom had also served in WWII and Korea. In those cases, I have accepted that time marches on and we are not immortal. There also are many who simply dropped out of sight in the years after the war and extraordinary efforts to locate them have been fruitless.
But this year I have found time and time again that an old friend and brother-in-arms has died, or is unable to attend due to injuries and sicknesses that have come far too early in their lives, often as a result of combat or exposure to toxins in the war zone. The impact of these sudden revelations, that we will no longer see a person who was such an integral part of our lives, has not been gentle; in fact it has been brutal.
But to a great degree that has been offset by the knowledge that we who have survived will be enjoying each others company for a long weekend, and will be providing the venue for the family of at least one of our fallen Marines to attain some aspect of closure.
It has been very difficult for the families of those we lost in combat to come to grips with the deaths of men who in many cases were barely out of their teens, and in many other cases were only at the doorstep of adulthood. To send a young man off to war and to receive only a metal coffin and flag in return does little to nothing to resolve the issues that the families have endured.
But this year we also will be joined by the sister of one of our fallen Marines and her family. And this year she finally will meet many of the people who were close to her brother and were there when he died.
She will meet people who knew an entirely different side of the young man she grew up with and I am certain that she will be pleased to discover that we also saw him as intelligent, warm and humorous, in addition to respecting him immensely as a Marine helicopter crewman.
There is little to nothing I can do this year to offset the ravages of time or reverse what has happened to so many of my brother Marines. Yet, helping one family put to rest some of the questions that have lingered since Vietnam will be a worthwhile endeavor.
And before our gathering in June, I will take some time this Memorial Day to maintain my long-standing tradition of saluting an honor roll of the deceased - an honor roll that continues to grow longer with each passing year. Semper Fidelis.