Memorial Day Service Lake Park United Methodist Church
By Jim Bracewell

Memorial Day Service Lake Park United Methodist Church Jim Bracewell May 29, 2011.

My flag will be at half staff tomorrow … why? … because tomorrow is Memorial Day, and that sets the theme for my message this morning. Just what is Memorial Day? Well, it’s a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. soldiers who died while in the military service. It was first enacted to honor Union and Confederate soldiers following the American Civil War, and it was extended after World War I to honor Americans who have died in all wars. Most folks consider Memorial Day in a couple of different ways: One – It is seen as a time for family gatherings, reunions, picnics; and the beginning of summer; and, Two – It is also seen as a time of remembrance of those who died in service of their country. I feel sure that those who made the ultimate sacrifice would not object to Americans using the holiday to celebrate life. We probably would not have that privilege without their sacrifice. No one is immune from the loss of friends and family members. Death is inevitable, and we all grieve for our departed loved ones. For the families and friends of our military personnel lost in the line of duty, I believe the impact is a little different. Not only have their loved ones died a violent death, but most were very young; their future snuffed out by a bullet, a bayonet, an explosion, or an aircraft crash. Time has a way of softening grief, and as months and years go by, many survivors seem to add pride to their feelings … pride in the fact that their loved ones died fighting for their country. That is not say that their grief has gone away … it never should, but there seems to be some comfort in the knowledge that they had the courage and commitment to do their duty, even if it could lead to the ultimate sacrifice. There are people who harbor bitterness at their loss, and have not been able to find pe ace. I believe these folks are in need of our prayers. We should make a special effort to remember them on Memorial Day.

For most veterans, particularly combat veterans, Memorial Day is a time of bitter-sweet memories of very difficult times. For us, it is a time to remember not only the horrors of war, but also a time of immense pride in our brothers and sisters in arms who died in service to our country. Their devotion to duty and dedication to the preservation of our liberty are unsurpassed by any other segment of our population. Many of us lost friends in war, and we think of them often --- not just on holidays. But holidays serve as reminders that so many others also died. I personally prefer not to dwell on their deaths, but on the lives they lived in service to our nation. There is a common thought among veterans that we fought for each other, and most who died did so for us. I think there is a lot of truth in that, but I can’t help but think that, all things considered, they died for all Americans. Near the end of my first Vietnam tour as an Army Helicopter pilot, I was sent to a place called Dak To. The mountains nearby were the scenes of some of the most intense, ferocious fighting imaginable. The worst took place a couple of days before my arrival, and my first mission was to transport dead soldiers from outlying areas to the base at Dak To. That dreadful mission lasted nearly all day, and was the most heart-wrenching single day of my wartime experience. I had other missions that were just as intense, but none that produced such uninterrupted emotion as that one. I flew all day with tears in my eyes. Those certainly are not pleasant memories, but with the passage of time, my grief has been tempered with the pride and gratitude I feel for those valiant soldiers who gave all. Before I went to war the first time, I was given some advice by a senior non-commissioned officer. He was nearing retirement after more than 30 years in the infantry. The old sergeant was a veteran of the Korean war and two tours in Vietnam. When he spoke, we rookies listened. He advised me not to get too close to the men around me. He said it would be very hard to do, but if I could manage it, it would be a little easier to endure the loss of fellow soldiers. I failed miserably! I found it impossible to remain aloof, and not become close friends with my fellow pilots and crews. We lived in tents together ... we ate together ... we partied together ... we grieved together ... we flew together … and we fought our enemies together. We did so much together that we later began to refer to each other as brothers. We still do to this day. Our relationship brings to mind the following excerpt from the St. Crispen’s Day Speech, taken from William Shakespeare’s Henry V: That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart; his passport shall be made, And crowns for convoy put into his purse; We would not die in that man's company That fears his fellowship to die with us. From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered- We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother. Last month Sonja and I travelled to San Antonio to attend a small reunion with about eighteen of my fellow pilots and crew members. The first day we were all together, we spoke briefly of our departed brethren. We did not dwell on their loss ... we spoke of their lives, including some humorous antics that I won’t mention here. There was no need for us express grief or sadness. We all knew how each other felt. Perhaps we just didn’t want to put a damper on the festive mood, or maybe we sub-consciously wanted to shield our wives from the uglier side of our time together. Whatever the reason, we didn’t discuss our losses until the banquet on our last night, when we toasted “our departed brethren.” It was just that short, and the gathering remained upbeat from then on. Sometimes, though, something said would trigger a memory for a couple of us. We would give each other a knowing look and an almost imperceptible nod ... and say nothing. We didn’t have to. It was almost like we could read each other’s thoughts. We won’t be together on Memorial Day, but I believe every one of us will spend a little time thinking about each other and our brothers whose names appear on a memorial wall in Washington, D.C. The loss of life because of the Vietnam war has not ended. A couple of years ago, I lost a dear friend to cancer attributed to the defoliant called “Agent Orange.” Most of us were exposed to that chemical, and we thought it was safe at the time. I, myself, sprayed the chemical from a helicopter on several occasions, and at the end of each mission, my uniform was soaked with it. Now, I’m being monitored by a Veterans Administration hospital, and so far, I have no symptoms associated with Agent Orange. From the American Civil War through the Vietnam war, we have recorded approximately one and one-half million combat deaths. I don’t know the numbers for today’s war against terror, but you can be sure our young people approach their duties with the same devotion and sacrifice as their predecessors.

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