To me Memorial Day is personal.
And today I’m angry.
But I get ahead of myself.
I grew up in the 1960s and 70s at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where for 25 years my father was a civilian professor, and where he and my mom are buried.
My Dad was very close to his students. They often came by the house to get a bit of a refuge from the stresses of cadet life: take off the uniform, smoke a cigarette, have a beer. Talk literature and music and language. And my brothers and I often played with them: throwing around a football or playing catch with a baseball. They were young men, 18, 19, 20, 21 years old. They seemed so grown up to me.
At the time, 1967, I was ten and had only a vague idea of what the cadets were. I knew they were students and were about to become soldiers. I was taken by the spectacle of the parades, with cadets in grey uniforms and high-plumed hats carrying rifles or swords and marching in tight formation.
Cadets at the time were not permitted to leave the post, nor to have visitors from off post. But when they graduated in June there was an influx of civilians, of friends and family to watch the graduation parade, to attend the graduation ceremony at the football stadium, and then to watch their cadet get married.
During June Week, as it is called, it seemed as if there was a different wedding every hour at the Most Holy Trinity Church, colloquially known as the Catholic Chapel. My two younger brothers and I were altar boys.
As it happens, we were the only family with three altar boys. And because serving a weekday wedding required getting pulled out of school, the church found it easier to use my brothers and me for all three-altar-boy events. The church got standing permission from our parents. Then, like clockwork, a military sedan driven by a soldier would pull up to the school, the principal would pull each of us out of class, and we’d be driven the three miles to the church. We’d serve as many weddings as were scheduled, and then either be driven back or walk home.
In June Week in 1967 my parents attended many of those weddings. Some of their favorite students were getting married. And we kids had gotten to know the grooms quite well. They also typically brought their brides and both sets of parents to the house to meet my folks the day before the wedding.
The typical career path for a newly-graduated cadet was this: Quick honeymoon, then report to Fort Benning, Georgia, for infantry training with their new platoons. Then deployment to Vietnam as second lieutenants commanding platoons of about 30 men.
In late January 1968, eighty thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops launched a coordinated attack on more than one hundred cities and towns in South Vietnam. It started on the lunar new year, known as Tet, and this attack was dubbed the Tet Offensive. Although it turned out to be a tactical failure by the North, it cost Americans dearly. In the first week alone the U.S. lost 2,547 killed in action, making it the deadliest week of the war. That year more than 16,500 American were killed in action, making 1968 the deadliest year of the war.
Many of those killed were new second lieutenants from West Point.
Starting in mid-February and continuing throughout the year, the green military sedan would pull into the school parking lot, and my brothers and I would depart to serve at a funeral, which also requires three altar boys. As often as not, we recognized the families. We had served their weddings the prior June.
The funeral took two parts: a funeral mass, and then a formal burial at the West Point Cemetery, about a mile from the Church. There was a funeral procession, including muffled drums, bugles, and a part of the West Point Band, on the route between the church and the cemetery.
As the senior altar boy I led the procession, carrying a large crucifix as if it was a flag. Behind me my brothers walked side by side; one carrying a censer filled with smoking incense, the other a silver pitcher of holy water. The priest would later use these at the graveside, waving the censer to diffuse the smoke from the incense and sprinkling holy water on the coffin. Then the honor guard, flag bearers, the hearse with lights on, and then the long line of cars, also with their lights on.
Along the route of the procession we marched in solemn slow steps, accompanied by the rolling beat of the muffled drums, echoing out continuous four-beat rolls: rrr-rrr-rrts (pause), rrr-rrr-rrts (pause)… a full mile to the cemetery.
At the cemetery, after the priest had performed his rites, the military took over. Each funeral was the same. First, a column of seven soldiers fired a three-volley 21-gun salute. Then a bugler some 100 feet away played Taps. Then the honor guard, standing around the coffin, ceremonially lifted the American flag, folded it in half lengthwise, and then diagonally twelve times, making a tight triangle with the blue field and white stars facing up.
A member of the honor guard, in dress blue uniform, then walked to the widow or parent, knelt, bowed his head, and holding the flag between open white-gloved hands softly said, “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service. God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America.”
For me the Vietnam War was personal. I experienced the war not only on TV, not only, in the post-Tet coverage, when President Johnson announced that he would neither seek nor accept the nomination of his party to run for president again. I experienced the war through the tears of widows holding newborn babies, and the widows and Gold-Star parents of my Dad’s students, clutching blue triangles with white stars, holding back tears at the cemetery.
Vietnam news coverage featured what was known as the Five-O’clock Follies; the nightly news briefing in Saigon where military leaders spewed nonsense about how we were winning the war. One Associated Press reporter at the time called it “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.”
Today we have the same, where the President spews absurdities about how he’s winning the war on COVID-19. He rambles about injecting disinfectants and promotes a dangerous and unapproved drug. He calls for houses of worship to open even as his public health experts argue that it’s still dangerous for large groups to gather.
This weekend we are approaching the same number of American fatalities as we experienced in the Vietnam and Korean wars combined. But we have suffered these losses in two months rather than in 25 years. The New York Times Sunday devoted its entire front page to the names and information of one thousand of them. That’s merely one percent of the fatalities so far. It just happens to fall on Memorial Day Weekend.
More relevant, we have a president who dishonors those who wear the uniform.
He viciously attacks Gold-Star families.
Trump called for a “total and complete ban” of Muslims entering the United States. Five thousand Muslims serve in uniform; we are fighting next to Muslim allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
He calls immigrants “animals” and an invasion. Today 65,000 immigrants serve in the U.S. military, putting themselves on the line for their adoptive country. That’s about five percent of all who wear the uniform. More than 20,000 of them are not U.S. citizens.
Some never will be. Military Times reported in 2018 on a U.S. Government Accountability Office report:
“Over the past couple of years, stories of non-citizen veterans being deported have made major headlines. As it turns out, there is a process in place that provides extra consideration for those immigration cases, but federal officials haven’t been following it.” A review of the GAO report and others suggest members of the military, before and after discharge, face increasing risk of deportation, naturalization denials and slowdowns, and/or expulsion from the military due to their immigration status under the Trump administration.
Duty, Honor, Country
So on this memorial day, my thoughts are with the families of those whose weddings and funerals my brothers and I participated in. And with all Gold-Star families.
And with one family in particular: Khizr and Ghazala Khan, immigrants from Pakistan, whose son gave the last full measure of his devotion. Captain Humayun Khan, who was Muslim and an immigrant, served in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004. He saw a suspicious car approaching a guard post. He put himself between his troops and two suicide bombers. He and the bombers were killed in the explosion. His troops were saved. He was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. True American hero.