On Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, we will commemorate all those who have died in military service to their country.
Some 15 or so years ago, the members of a women’s chat group in which I participated were berated by a young woman whose spouse was serving in a combat zone. She first shamed us for being unable to identify, on a blank world map that she forwarded, the country where he was stationed. She then took issue with another participant’s remark that, due to advancing technology, we were all under the impression that most of those in the military no longer had to rely only on handwritten letters, but had the occasional availability of e-mail or text or even the rare international phone call. I sprang to the defense of the member whom she berated for making this last comment by pointing out that I’d just responded to a charitable plea requesting funds that would provide international phone minutes to those in the military.
The young woman replied to our remarks by verbally chewing us up and spitting us out. We were part of the problem, she sniped—people who knew nothing about what military spouses and families endured. We didn’t even know where the battles were raging. We hadn’t a clue.
Since this woman was perhaps 30 years my junior, I took a deep breath and counted to about 110 before addressing her comments. Then I calmly referenced the unmarked world atlas page she’d forwarded to us when pressing her point. I suggested she place her finger on Vietnam or Korea, or even France.
She could just about manage France.
So I explained that it had been in France that my uncle, serving in WWII, had hidden in a chicken coop to avoid discovery by a German patrol, thereby contracting the histoplasmosis that destroyed his lungs and shortened his life.
I showed her the spot in Vietnam where my brother-in-law, the man I would never know, had died. I recounted my mother-in-law’s description of her anguish on that afternoon when she, playing cards with girlfriends, received the terrible news of his death–the death that had occurred weeks prior. I then marked Korea, where another uncle served, and survived, and from where he sent me, his toddler niece, a beautiful doll dressed in a red silk kimono.
I told her about a friend’s classmate who was forced to repeat her senior year of high school, having not attended classes for months after receiving word that her boyfriend had died at Phnom Phen. Ten of his handwritten letters arrived just the day after she learned of his death, I explained. She lay on her bed for days, dry-eyed, not eating or sleeping, until her despairing parents had her involuntarily committed for a brief time, fearing she might suicide.
I described the stories told me by war survivors of letters that didn’t reach them for four, six, even eight weeks, only to drop into their laps in a giant bunch, the envelopes helpfully numbered by their parents and girlfriends and spouses so that they could be opened in the correct order. No texts, no e-mails, no FaceTime or Skype or Zoom. No international phone calls. Just hand-written letters, sometimes enclosing a photo. A rare reel-to-reel tape, which they might not even be able to play.
I reminded her that all these service members were draftees, not volunteers. That they, drafted as young as age 18, could not, at that time, even vote for the very leaders who were sending them off to fight and die, many in wars that were not even declared.
Don’t shame us, I told her, that we cannot identify current combat zones. For some of us, the landscape of war is as old and weary as we are. The memories, though—the memories, despite their age, are fresh and new. The memories, the pain and wondering, the anguish—those will never fade.
There is nothing straightforward or easy about sending a loved one off to a combat zone. It is sheer, unmitigated hell, all too often ending in the greatest of sorrow. I empathized in every bone and nerve fiber for what that young woman was enduring. None of us belittled what she was experiencing. But we had, all of us, endured our own combat zones and separation and agonizing uncertainty, in a landscape of war that did not even hold out a faint hope of occasionally hearing the voices of or seeing the faces of our loved ones. For that reason alone, mutual respect was needed, I concluded sternly; respect for each group that had endured a different and perhaps even multiple theaters of war.
Not long after this discussion (although for other reasons), I ended my membership with that online group, so I’ve never really known if the young woman took my words to heart.
But I’ve always hoped she did.
If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Judge Not…Sort of”,
which you can locate in the Archives from March 23, 2018, or the more recent “The Big Ice Storm”, which published on February 10, 2021.