Memorial Day 2010 – Witness for Them

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By Scott “The Piper” St. Clair

Memorial Day is traditionally a time to honor and thank the men and women who have given what Abraham Lincoln described as the last full measure of devotion in service to their country. Ceremonies, speeches and the laying of wreaths are associated with the holiday as much as a tree is at Christmas.


But in the bigness of it all, we must not lose sight of the intimacy the day represents. Every late soldier, sailor, airman and Marine was someone’s father, brother or son. And today we add someone’s mother, sister or daughter.

The personal nature of their sacrifice is often lost in ceremony and rhetoric. To bury your son or a young mother or the best friend of your childhood is painful in a way unassuagable by notions of national pride or saving the world for democracy. Just ask anyone who’s gone through it or any parent who sends a son or daughter off to war.

Each fallen service member was a human being with a human story.

Two of my sons serve in uniform – one a soldier and one a Marine. My soldier son spent time as a military journalist in Europe with Stars and Stripes. He told me once that his most difficult task was writing the stories of too many memorial services for soldiers killed in Iraq. He struggled to separate the clichés we see on TV from the unique human being whose death was mourned. And he worked hard to make each story an original recounting of that lost life.

That’s important because the numbers are staggering. Last week, we passed milestone with the 1,000 fatality in Afghanistan.

In our national history, the numbers from all wars are enormous:

  • U.S. Military serving during war…43,185,893
  • Battle Deaths…………………………..653,708
  • Other Deaths (In theater)……………..14,560
    Other Deaths in Service ……………..525,930
  • Non-mortal woundings……………..1,447,281

Over one million dead, but each one has a unique story.

I thank God every day that my sons are safe. And I am grateful every day for the service and sacrifice of those who are not. Every Memorial Day, the two who come to my mind are Sergeant First Class Nathan Ross Chapman, the first American serviceman to die from hostile fire in the war in Afghanistan in 2002. He’s buried at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, WA.

I also remember Petty Officer 1st Class Regina Clark, a single mom from Centralia, WA who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. She was a cook who had been assigned to work a checkpoint in order to not offend Muslim women who had to be searched for weapons.

Last year over the Memorial Day weekend with my army son I stumbled across a small film that told one story: HBO Film’s production of Taking Chance, tells of a Marine officer who escorts the remains of a fallen Marine, a young man named Chance, home to be buried.

The officer is a cubicle-bound self-described numbers cruncher who realizes he has become disconnected from the personal nature of war. He volunteers to escort the body of a young Marine from his Colorado hometown back to be buried. Based upon a true story, the film follows every step of the process from the loading of coffins onto a military transport in Germany to the respectful, even reverential, treatment they’re given at the military mortuary in Dover, DE.

Through every step of the process and every stop along the way, we’re shown an unusual and inspiring national unity a lot of us thought no longer existed – a unity that personifies what Memorial Day should be about.

From the long-haired kid who drives the hearse to the airline ticket agent with a tear in her eye as she thanks the officer for his service to the baggage handlers who form a yellow-vested honor guard standing at attention and rendering honors as the fallen Marine’s coffin is loaded onto the airplane to the impromptu escort given the hearse carrying the remains over the last few miles of a Rocky Mountain highway by truckers and motorists, we see appreciation, gratitude, love of humanity and love of country and the simple grief of a man who didn’t know the boy he was escorting, but who reconnected with his soul through the process.

I cried like a baby throughout. And I did it again over this Memorial Day weekend as I watched it one more time.

How to remember the sacrifice of a Marine who was described by his father as having wanted to be one since childhood – the same description I give for my Marine son – is a question with which the officer struggles. He’s given an answer by a grizzled old guy at a V.F.W. hall in Wyoming who tells him that his job is to be a witness – “Without a witness, they just disappear,” the vet tells the officer.

So, too, should we be witnesses. At the Freedom Foundation is a mother whose son was wounded in Iraq, a wife whose husband is a proud World War II veteran, and a senior fellow who was in the army during the Cold War – they are witnesses. Through their work for freedom they honor the memory of the fallen much in the same way as the Marine officer in Taking Chance.

Those who are on the cusp of service need to be reminded, or perhaps told for the first time, in whose footsteps they follow. That’s why I’m giving a copy of the film to a dear friend whose son is in R.O.T.C. in the east. Maybe they’ll watch it together and have a long, sobering talk about what each other has at stake.

Today, who remembers SFC Chapman and Petty Officer Clark – who grieves for them?

Theirs are two personal stories in need of a witness, and it’s a duty for which I have volunteered lest I too become disconnected.

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