Last year in Merced, my wife and I attended one of several ceremonies honoring those who gave their lives in the battles of the nation.
We had not been to one of these ceremonies in quite a while. It was touching as we heard the speeches, viewed the military salute, and experienced the playing of Taps.
Events such as these make me feel sad about the loss of life in our nation’s wars, and at the same time pleased that we take these moments a few times every year to remember the sacrifice by the troops.
Our family took Memorial Day seriously when I was growing up in upstate New York. My grandparents and parents often called it Decoration Day, a term you don’t hear much about anymore.
The rituals for Decoration Day included placing flowers on the grave sites. This was done not only in our village, but at every final resting place for family members within driving distance.
The tradition of traveling to cemeteries that were more than an hour away from our home was maintained by my grandparents while they were still alive. My dad and uncle continue that annual trip now.
On separate occasions in recent years, my sister and I have taken that trip with Dad.
I grew up in the Vietnam era, and was isolated somewhat by the protests on the home front. My uncle served in the Army. Our family supported him with letters. We waited for him to return at the end of his tour of duty.
Once home, we sort of put Vietnam away in a corner of our consciousness as my uncle went back to work. When he died six months later in an automobile crash, any thoughts about the sacrifice he made for his country were replaced with sadness and mourning for a young man whose life ended so early.
It wasn’t until over forty years later that I was better able to understand the kind of sacrifice my uncle and his fellow soldiers made for America. In the section of my book Grown Up, Going Home, I detail my efforts to connect with former soldiers who served with my uncle in Vietnam.
Thanks to a website that was set up just for that particular unit, I connected with the site’s webmaster who not only knew of my uncle in Vietnam, but who also put me in touch with four other soldiers who served alongside Specialist Fourth Class William Newvine.
It was an incredible experience gathering photographs from the webmaster, and speaking by phone to the men who shared up to eighteen months in the Vietnam jungles with my uncle.
As amazing as this experience was, it doesn’t compare with a small piece of paper I still keep in my wallet. On that paper are the names of five soldiers who served with my uncle, and did not make it home.
The five were killed in action. I took that piece of paper with me on a business trip to Washington, DC a few years ago and used it to find their names etched on the walls of the Vietnam Memorial monument.
I will never forget them or their sacrifice.
Close to our home in north Merced, my wife and I occasionally walk past a memorial to a young soldier who lost his life in a sniper attack in Iraq. Marine Corporal Joshua Daniel Pickard was killed six days before Christmas in 2006.
He was twenty years old. The stone memorial includes fresh flowers, an American Flag, and a small wooden statue of a soldier.
The Los Angeles Times obituary of Corporal Pickard mentions his talk before children at the Allan Peterson Elementary School in Merced.
In the obituary, he was quoted by a family member as saying there were more good people than bad in Iraq and how it was an honor and privilege to support the good people of that country.
I didn’t know Corporal Pickard and I didn’t know the five men who lost their lives in the unit my uncle served with in Vietnam.
I hope they know that our country appreciates what they did. At least every Memorial Day we have the opportunity to stand back and reflect on the sacrifices our armed forces have made during the many wars throughout our nation’s history.
For more on the soldiers from the 22nd Infantry: www.22ndinfantry.org
For a video on the memorial service for Marine Corporal Joshua Daniel Pickard:
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.