I originally published this last Veterans Day, but it’s more appropriate to Memorial Day. Peace be to the memory of my cousin Mike, and all others who have died in service to their country.
The word veteran derives from a Latin term for “old,” but on this particular Veterans Day, I can only think of youth. Of holiday meals and summer picnics in childhood, when the Gehrzes would gather and I’d get to see my cousins from Wisconsin for a few hours. And of one of them in particular, six years younger than me, who died a month and a day ago at the not-old age of 33.
Of his three children, none older than three.
Being six years and one state apart was enough distance to keep Mike and me from knowing each other too well as we grew up. And that didn’t really change over the years. (Indeed, my chief fear in writing this piece is that I’m writing about someone I never did get to know all that well. Forgive me when my knowledge or memory fail me…) Not long after his family relocated to Minnesota, I went east for college and grad school. And as I came back to the Twin Cities, Mike was halfway around the world, serving as a Navy corpsman with a Marines unit in Iraq.
That winter I remember joining other Bethel folks to pray for our loved ones in the military. I prayed that Mike would be kept from having to do harm and be kept from harm himself.
At least in part, it wasn’t to be. Mike was seriously wounded and returned to the States. But he was out of danger, and it seemed that life could continue. My wife and I attended his wedding, and our children got to see his children at least once in a while at those Gehrz gatherings. (The pattern continued.) When we managed to find rare quiet moments for conversation, we compared notes as new fathers and talked about his plans to continue his education.
But while Mike seemed larger than life, full of love and energy, he never really recovered from his wounds. When we learned of his passing last month, it was both a shock and not fully a surprise. I’ve studied war enough to know that it breaks almost everyone it touches.
I’d visited Fort Snelling National Cemetery once before, a couple summers back when I was researching World War I commemoration in Minnesota. I remember realizing that for all its grand scale, military precision, and patriotic imagery, it felt like most other cemeteries. Husbands and wives were buried next to each other, sometimes children as well. And almost every pair of dates that I saw at the bottom of a headstone was separated by a good seventy or eighty years.
These were veterans of America’s wars (a few going back into the 19th century), but they had died in peacetime, usually after long lives.
When I returned to that cemetery last month for Mike’s committal ceremony, I suddenly noticed exceptions to that pattern. The Army Air Force officer who had died in 1948, not yet into his thirties. The Vietnam vets who passed on before Mike was born, thirty-three years ago…. And statistics about veterans’ life expectancy and incidences of mental illness, alcoholism, joblessness, and suicide in that population started to come to mind.
In a 2006 study economists Kelly Bedard and Olivier Deschênes found that military service in World War II and Korea caused the premature deaths of 2 million veterans. On average, those conflicts shaved 11-12 years off the lives of the Americans who survived them. (A significant factor there was the prevalence of smoking in the 1940s/1950s military.) Vietnam veterans groups have claimed a similar shortening of lifespans from that conflict. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, twenty-two vets commit suicide every day — though the actual number might be higher.
I’m not the journalist that Mike’s father is, but snapshots from that ceremony stuck in my mind. Mostly of people trying, each in their own way, to be as brave as Mike had been. But the tears came, and behind them, anger and fear and questions that won’t be answered.
I’ve never hated war so much, nor loved my extended family so much.
But most of all, I realized that Mike’s family was much bigger than civilians can know. Taps was played, shots were fired, and the casket flag was folded by aging American Legion members, men who shared a war with my Grandpa Gehrz and no doubt had friends resting in peace beneath the ground around us. Flag-bearing Patriot Guard volunteers, many of them vets themselves, lined the road leading to and from the committal shelter.
So on this Remembrance Day, I return again to the work of my favorite war poet, Wilfred Owen, whose own life ended too soon, a week before the Armistice of 1918. In his time on the Western Front, Owen learned that “love is not the binding of fair lips / With the soft silk of eyes that look and long….” Rather, it is “wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong; / Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips; / Knit in the webbing of the rifle-thong.”
Those of us who haven’t seen war can’t truly know the beauty found in “hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight” nor hear the “music in the silentness of duty.” But I have learned, afresh, that “These men are worth / Your tears.”
Peace be to your memory, Mike.