As Memorial Day approaches and we as a nation remember the service members we’ve lost in conflicts near and far, I sometimes wonder who and what it is we are trying to remember. What lifts these men and women off the page of statistics, the cold tally of the dead? What is it that makes them human again, so that we remember them not just as numbers, but for the courage, fear, duty, love and all the emotions that made them who they were?
A large part of the answer to these questions is that we remember them through the stories of their fellow service members, the ones who came home and with whom their lives and stories intersected.
A hospice patient and WWII veteran’s story
I first met Larry, a 90-year-old hospice patient, while he sat at his kitchen table in a small apartment outside Boston. Over the course of a few visits, he shared that he was a Navy gunner’s mate in World War II. It took a bit longer for him to reveal that he was the rear gunner in a Navy dive bomber in the Pacific during the war. Hopefully I didn’t show it completely, but I was wide-eyed in amazement. As an 18-year-old, Larry’s job was essentially to ride a 12,000-foot roller coaster, facing backwards, while at the same time trying to aim and shoot a machine gun to keep from having his plane shot down. For long stretches of the war, rear gunners like Larry were sent out to do this job without any prior training. I tried to imagine the courage and skill that required, and the fear they experienced. What a ride! Larry downplayed the whole thing, though he was proud to show me a newspaper photo of his plane taken while flying back to the aircraft carrier.
As a hospice chaplain, I have become too keenly aware of the dwindling number of WWII veterans we have left with us. I really wanted Larry to capture the memories of his experience – whether in recording or in writing – not only for the remaining generations of his family, but also for a nation that is eventually going to lose all those who had served her so faithfully. Larry would have none of it. He believed he hadn’t done anything that so many other young men hadn’t also done. Larry was right, of course. Many other young men had done this mission and many other men and women undertook similarly dangerous and frightening ones.
In my work, I’m often reminded of Shakespeare who once wrote a sonnet that ended with this couplet-
“So long lives this [sonnet],
And this gives life to thee.”
Shakespeare knew that words and stories not committed to paper were impermanent. Yet, by committing his love for his sweetheart to paper, he had created something that would memorialize her long after both were in their graves. So long as the poem continued to be read, his love would continue to live.
Honoring veterans and their sacrifices
This is what I hoped Larry would see – that he wouldn’t be telling the story for his own glorification, but for the memory of others – his fellow shipmates who never had the chance to tell their stories. I dearly wanted Larry to understand that his final act of comradeship for his fellow veterans would not be one of elevating himself above them, but would be the ultimate act of homage. He would be giving them a life beyond the grave, a small measure of eternity in this time and space, for the sacrifices they made.
In the end, Larry wouldn’t budge and took his story with him. As a fellow veteran, I hope that I have given him and his fellow WWII veterans some measure of honor and eternity by telling Larry’s story as he shared it with me. As hospice professionals and clinicians, we are all bearers and witnesses to sacred stories, none more so sacred than the stories of service to our country. On this Memorial Day, may we remember as much as we are allowed by our veteran patients to be not just listeners to these stories, but also chroniclers. So long live these stories, and these give life to our veterans.