When the sun sets this Memorial Day, I will go out to my backyard, light my fire pit, pull up a lawn chair, pour myself a double Scotch and light a cigar.
My wife will leave me alone as I stare at the flames, remembering the marines I knew who paid the ultimate price so that millions of Americans can spend the day with their families.
I remember 14 years ago, when the sun set as I held the hand of a teenage marine who had been shot in the head by a Taliban sniper in Helmand Province, and his life slipped away as a medic desperately tried to save him. I didn’t make it. It was just hours after my own brush with death during America’s longest war that ended so disastrously last year.
I remember the men who were killed by the IED blast that ended my combat career early and left me with physical and psychological scars that I still bear.
I think about all the service members who have died fighting. I think of those who came home from battlefields and faced – and were ultimately defeated by – their own invisible war with mental health problems caused and compounded by the horrors they experienced.
They are amongst the 17 to 18 veterans who kill themselves every day, some living on the streets and others in parking lots of Department of Veterans Affairs clinics and hospitals where they have been trying to get the care they need. Thousands more are desperately trying to find help and avoid the same fate. They are all at the front of my mind.
I served 13 years as a Marine Corps infantryman, with four deployments to Afghanistan and one to Guantanamo Bay. I was part of Task Force 58 and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit when we invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, a year after I graduated high school.
Just days after watching the towers fall on a barracks TV, I was on a boat bound for Central Asia.
On Memorial Day 2008, I was in Garmsir, in the south of Helmand Province, ready to go home to see my pregnant wife and family in North Carolina after months of endless gun-fights with the Taliban and watching my friends die.
Eight days earlier I had a near-death experience when a Taliban sniper round hit a bank just inches from my face. The men around me thought I was dead, but I got lucky.
Just a few hours later, as the battle continued, I lay beside the teenager telling him everything was going to be alright. I knew it wasn’t. A round from a terrorist gunman had cratered his skull. I held his hand from him and tried to comfort him as the doctor performed a tracheotomy on the floor of a mud hut.
Minutes after a helicopter came to pick him up, I heard the dreaded radio call for a Marine called in action: “Fallen Angel”, their initials, and the last four digits of their Social Security number. There is nothing worse to hear.
For me, that’s why the day is not just about beers and barbecues, but about reflection and remembering American service members who we have lost in battles abroad and at home.
I live in Jacksonville, North Carolina. It’s much like any other mid-sized town in America. But there’s one exception: it is also the home of Camp Lejeune, and the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.
Memorial Day is treated more like a holy day. Beaches will be packed, BBQ and beer will be served and flags will line the streets but for veterans and their families here and across the country – whether it is at home or in cemeteries – the day is a chance to celebrate those who paid the ultimate price, but also the impact those men and women had on our lives.
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There are too many. They are men I trained, fought and partied with. They are men whose deaths I still blame myself for. They are men who will forever be apart of me.
One consistency is that they are all too young. While I get older and watch my family and friends hit milestones such as passing their driving tests, marrying and starting families, those that were killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and countless other countries will never see that happen.
Celebrate Memorial Day. Have a barbecue, enjoy a beer and relax. But after the grill goes cold, the beer is gone and the day is winding down, take a moment to reflect. Take time to research those “fallen angels” and learn about their lives, because their memory is all we have. Think about the veterans who are struggling every day to come to terms with their experiences and surroundings.
Think of those still fighting to get proper care and treatment from the government. The Department of Veterans Affairs does not have the best reputation, but it is all they have, and veterans need to ask for their help.
Bill Bee is the co-author of ‘TheShot’, detailing his time and near-death experiences as a marine in the US army
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.