Make this Memorial Day personal

Newspaper from the Battle for Crete in World War 2

History is best learned in person. While I was temporarily stationed on Crete in support of the ongoing conflict in Libya, I had a chance to visit a local museum that featured Cretan history from ancient times to the present. There was a large room devoted to the Battle of Crete, where the forces of Nazi Germany first fought a naval engagement, and then invaded Crete in one of the largest parachute drops in history. While Germany did successfully invade, it came at a great cost, and the Germans were hesitant to use parachute tactics in the future.

The newspaper above has a few interesting titles. First, its a good reminder that things weren’t all that certain in 1941 in Europe. Losing Crete, and followed by a massive German invasion of Russia soon after, left Europe’s position pretty uncertain. It’s easy to read history now and say “Well, its obvious the US would prevail,” but at the time it wasn’t so certain. I also had to smile at the “Capture of Fallujah” headline, since Fallujah continues to be as important back then as it is in modern times.

Walking in the nearby cemetery I found graves from both Allied and Axis powers. The graves are simple. I don’t recognize any of the names. I know the facts of the battles they fought in, but the actual people, outside of a few significant generals and admirals, are unknown to me.

I suspect that this is the same feeling many Americans get walking through Arlington National Cemetery. Sure, if you have a loved one buried there, its a different feeling. But most people don’t, and during Memorial Day, its hard to know what we’re supposed to feel about the graves we walk by. Sad? Respectful? Mournful?

I think the reason its difficult is because we’re taught history from an events perspective, especially for wars. These groups of people, using these weapons, fought over this place on a map, and this group won. But the truth is that each of those people that fought have a back story. A loved one at home. A family that misses them. They are fighting for many different reasons. Maybe they were drafted, or maybe they enlisted because they really believe in their country. Maybe they joined to climb further in the ranks, or maybe this is a one-and-done enlistment.

When we get the chance to hear these personal stories, they stick with us. You can’t read the book Unbroken (or watch the movie) and not be moved by it. Same goes for stories like Hacksaw Ridge or even Black Hawk Down. It’s easy to gloss over history in a cold, calculating way when its presented as figures, numbers, and geography, but its a lot harder when we hear about the individual people behind the battles. We identify with people.

So this Memorial Day, I encourage people that often struggle with “How am I supposed to react” to take the time to learn one story. Learn about the in-depth story of someone that gave their life for their country. Talk to a veteran about someone they knew that died fighting for their country. Make that individual connection. Don’t get too worried about the big picture stuff, instead, focus on one individual story. That will make it much more personal and meaningful.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

The true meaning of Memorial Day

By Christopher Harper

In many small towns throughout America, Memorial Day is special.

Almost everyone knows someone who served in the military; most know someone who died.

Here in Muncy, Pennsylvania, two memorials stand out.

A few years ago, the town and the state recognized two fallen soldiers by naming bridges after them.

Army Pvt. Walter L. Smith, who served in the Spanish-American War, and U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. William F. Merrill, a Vietnam War veteran, died in service to their country.

The war against Spain was declared in April 1898 after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. On May 12, 1898, Smith enlisted at Williamsport and was mustered into service as a private in Co. D, 12th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, According to historical documents found by his family, Smith met his fate while on a supply patrol with a small detachment in the Philippines on July 28, 1901. “[He] bravely and selflessly defended men in his company against an overwhelming attack by some 60 native insurgents. During the battle, Smith’s sergeant, the only other armed man, was shot and killed. Fighting alone, Smith saved the lives of two unarmed soldiers but was overpowered, captured, and taken prisoner,” according to the local newspaper.

While his remains never were recovered, in 2006, family members honored his service by placing a government-issued memorial headstone in the Smith family plot at Muncy Cemetery.

Merrill was with the 1st Marines during Operation Oklahoma Hills, an operation to clear out the enemy from their base camps and infiltration routes southwest of Da Nang, Vietnam.

On Nov. 26, 1969, Merrill and nine fellow Marines came to a ravine. The first to cross hit a wire attached to a booby trap, and he called out for Merrill, who guarded the device as the rest of the Marines went around it. As Merrill and his sergeant were standing at the device, the explosive detonated, killing Merrill and fatally wounding the other man. Merrill’s body was returned home to his family for interment at Boalsburg Cemetery.

“These were two sons of Muncy who went off to do their duties – like many sons of Muncy – but were unfortunately never able to come home.”State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, a former U.S. Air Force member, said at the bridge dedication ceremony.

The service of Smith and Merrill in two distant wars underlines the true meaning of Memorial Day.