Although I’ve never served in the military, profound respect for those who do is in my blood. My father served with the Marines during the Vietnam War. My stepfather was in the Navy. Both of my grandfathers served with the Army during World War II. Being raised by military men helped shape who I am today.
Fortunately, I’ve never directly lost someone to war. I’ve known those who have been damaged by it, certainly. My paternal grandfather received two purple hearts. My dad lost some of his hearing from a mortar that hit too close. The damage to their psyches is harder to pin down. My dad doesn’t really talk about it. Many of his era don’t.
I remember visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in the sixth grade during a Girl Scouts trip. It was haunting to see all of those names. It was also the first time that I realized how little I knew about my dad’s service. I wondered as I scanned the names how many of those men he knew. And I realized how very lucky I was that his name was not among them.
Sometimes, I wonder if we’ve lost some of the sobriety of Memorial Day to the jubilation about the start of summer, backyard barbecues, three-day weekend and all the sales, sales, sales, sales.
It’s strange, but even though I grew up with military men, Memorial Day was always more about backyard barbecues than solemnity. I don’t doubt for a second that my dad thought about the friends he lost during the war. But we didn’t talk about it. And I didn’t experience it firsthand. So, it was more distant somehow.
At least until the first Gulf War started.
We all have fixed points in time that change us forever. As a nation, we have collective moments. For my generation, that first defining moment was the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding. The next was the Gulf War.
I was a senior in high school when Operation Desert Storm began. There was talk of a reinstated draft, and as a 17-year-old, I was acutely aware of that significance. But what I remember most was the moment I heard we were at war.
I was in a car with friends on our way to jazz band practice. We were jubilantly singing along to the soundtrack of The Jungle Book on tape as we drove, momentarily lost, through heavy fog on our way to pick up another friend. When we found our way to his house, he ran out to the car and yelled, “We’re at war!” Time stopped.
It was years before I could listen to anything but live radio after that day. The sensation of being lost in the fog and having such a significant event happen without me being immediately aware of it was too much. I suspect that was the day that began my path toward being a hard-news reporter. Never again would I allow myself to be in the dark like that.
In fact, when the second Gulf War began, I was right on the news front lines. I was the one monitoring the wire for the report that fighting had begun. I was the one, this time, who announced, “We are at war.”
Whether we realize it, war changes us. Directly or indirectly, it happens nonetheless.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch captures this concept poignantly in her story Patriotic Gestures, which was chosen as one of the year’s best mystery stories in 2009. It’s a fitting reminder of the impact of war.
Allyson Longueira is publisher of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.