News & Notes from Around the World: Memorial Day Edition

Sather Air Base is a memorial itself, named for Scott Sather who was the first Airman to be killed in action in OIF. The Scott Sather memorial was dedicated last year and this was the first Memorial Day to further honor him and everyone else who has served with the same distinction as Scott Sather.

Baghdad, Iraq – While millions of Americans take a day of from work to reflect and enjoy each others company, the aerial port of Baghdad and the USO, that serves the 1000 passengers a day, were working at full speed. “Mission Critical” is when important work takes priority above all else, but the meaning of this day is too important to over look.

USO Duty Manager, Courtney Haueter, lead the National Moment of Remembrance and the entire aerial port staff, passengers and visitors paused for a full minute at 3:00pm local time. USO customers ceased all calls, IMs, games and movies while the military crew of Sather Air Base paused operations during that time.

Commanding Officer of the 447th, Col Bruce Taylor USAF, led the Memorial Day ceremony and spoke of heroes gone and not forgotten.  Honor Guard for both the Air Force and Army took part in the remembrance and did outstanding work in saluting their brothers in arms.

An essay by Theater of War‘s Bryan Doerries in today’s Washington Post – After a reading of Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for members of the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Stewart, Ga., a soldier approached me. His hands were trembling and he was fighting back tears.

“For a while now, I have been separated from my unit, the guys I fought alongside downrange. Being separated from your unit is like being stripped of your humanity. I think Sophocles wrote these plays to bring soldiers together to restore their humanity.” He leaned closer, his eyes locking with mine. “Without our humanity, none of this means anything.”

I held the soldier’s gaze and shook his hand, thanking him for his comment, which I promised to share with military audiences at performances throughout the United States…

Watching the soldier at Fort Stewart exit the auditorium last month, it suddenly seemed un-coincidental to me that the ancient plays that we were performing for the U.S. military during the ninth year of the war in Afghanistan and so many years into Iraq depicted what happened to the Greek armed forces during the ninth year of the Trojan War. Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, the visionary leader who made our project possible, has said repeatedly of today’s armed forces: “Never has so great a burden been placed upon the shoulders of so few on behalf of so many for so long.”

We are not a nation at war. We are a nation with a volunteer army at war… Click here to read the full essay.

From Snag Film’s Rick Allen – “For 99% of Americans, Memorial Day is a chance to circle a barbeque grill; for us, it’s about gathering together in a cemetery.” Probably nothing captures the enormous gulf between how veterans and civilians treat Monday’s national holiday than that quick but pointed reminder I heard Wednesday from Paul Rieckhoff.  Paul is the charismatic founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and author of the acclaimed book Chasing Ghosts, about his tour of duty in Iraq.  As most of us celebrate the “official” start of summer this weekend, hopefully the words of Paul Rieckhoff, or the roar of Rolling Thunder, or the quiet comfort that the USO brings every day to service families, will break through our routine.

My generation was the first beneficiary of our modern volunteer armed service, in the sense that no longer would all able-bodied men be expected to spend time in uniform.  The ability to outsource our service keeps us personally untouched by combat, but raises societal issues and comes with countervailing personal trade-offs. Sebastian Junger’s new book War and his companion film Restrepo vividly detail the depth of camaraderie that come from absolute commitment to the safety of your fellow squad members.  Those of us around our family barbeques can instinctively appreciate how common mortal danger binds brothers and sisters-in-arms; our challenge now is to find better ways to hold our veterans close to the whole community and to demonstrate our appreciation for what they’ve given for our freedoms.

IAVA joins many other governmental and non-profit organizations in working on the full range of issues facing today’s returning warriors. At a time when our economy struggles to produce new jobs, an estimated 30% of veterans of our current conflicts are out of work.  The Veterans Administration is more invigorated under Secretary Shinseki than it has been in many decades – but a huge number of vets, particularly the young ones, will never willingly walk into a VA hospital or ask for government help, despite what may be significant need.

Many organizations are hard at work to bridge these gaps. The USO assists service members and their families around the world. IAVA has created an incredible online community of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, and advocates for federal action on jobs, health, education and other pressing vet issues. There are various levels of government that deliver services as well as recreational opportunities to active duty warriors and their families, and veterans.  But more is needed, from our society collectively and each of us individually.

Leon Cooper will be on CNN Monday morning. Leon is 90, a WWII vet living in Los Angeles and working with a consistency and energy of someone in his 20s. That’s how old he was at Tarawa, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. Leon returned to that atoll when he learned that the beach that held the bones of his fallen comrades was now a garbage dump for islanders without arable land for alternatives.  His final campaign is captured in the film Return to Tarawa, which you can watch here.  Thanks to Leon’s indomitability, the power of the film, and the tools of SnagFilms, Congress last year directed the Department of Defense to identify the remains on Red Beach and bring them home.  In two months, the DOD teams will wing west to begin a task of memory and responsibility we have deferred for nearly 7 decades.

Kyle Maynard spends significant time working with wounded warriors.  An exceptional athlete honored with an ESPY and a shelf of other awards, best-selling author and motivational speaker, Kyle was born without complete limbs.  His motto, “No Excuses”, completely encapsulates how he lives his life. (A new film about Kyle will air on ESPN in November and you can learn more here.) Not long ago, I spent an afternoon at Ft. Myer, Virginia, with Kyle and a group of Iraq and Afghanistan vets with serious physical injuries resulting from their service.  We gathered around an exercise mat, and Kyle put the six men and one woman through a daunting workout – but from my fly-on-the-wall vantage point, the greatest outcome of the day came from the conversation among the participants.  The service members joining Kyle knew he only had a civilian’s perspective … but they also knew that his physical challenges had been life-long. They had in common much more than what they lacked; each was working every minute to turn loss into motivation, not cause for withdrawal.

We too need to make an effort, each in our own way. Memorial Day provides many such opportunities.  At the very least, it provides the chance for reflection and appreciation. Our founder, Ted Leonsis, coined the term “filmanthropy” to combine the communication power of film with the interactivity of the web, and allow an engaged audience new ways to start a conversation or take an action. We’ve pulled 11 films together from different conflicts and perspectives for Memorial Day – you can watch them from the widget below, or at http://bit.ly/SnagMemorialDay .  Enjoy them alone or with others. And make your Memorial Day into something to remember.

Take Time to Honor the Living, As Well

Center Managers across the Southwest Asia (SWA) region were tasked to come up with unique way of saying thank you to USO Sponsors as part of Operation Thank You. Joe Bowman, Camp LSA Duty Manager, had the idea to create an American flag made of uniforms, soldiers’ patches, and flak jacket material that represents all the service men and women stationed in the SWA region. USO staff, volunteers, and Troops proudly stand with the finished product in December 2009.

by Sloan Gibson, President and CEO of the USO:

Each Memorial Day, American flags around the world are lowered to half-staff. It’s a quiet gesture that reminds us of those former defenders who are no longer with us.

At noon, though, the flags are returned to the top of their poles, symbolizing the continuity of this nation. That gesture is an affirmation that the nation lives on, and is not in mourning.

Symbolism aside, the last Monday in May is the most solemn holiday for most American veterans. The day is celebrated at cemeteries and town squares – at barbecues and baseball games. It is an opportunity to pause for a moment to reflect on the service and sacrifice of millions of Americans who risked their lives to ensure our freedoms. It’s a time for us to issue one more “Thank You” to those who cannot celebrate with us.
Since the last quarter of the 19th Century, that has been the case. Graves are made tidy, and veterans tell their stories to their grandchildren, and the cycle continues in times of war and peace.

For nearly nine years this generation’s service men and women have been going into combat, with predictable costs — many deaths and an astonishing number of life altering injuries that would likely have been fatal just a generation ago. So, I propose that this year as we remember those who have died, we pay additional attention to those who return changed forever.

Of course, I mean no disrespect to those, like my father, we honor on Memorial Day, but each day, I am reminded about the other casualties of combat. When I visit a military hospital, I see young men and women who are facing a life they could not anticipate. I see their wounds and witness their limitless spirit as they work to recover. And, I wonder.

I wonder what will happen when the sergeant leaves the service and security of his surroundings wherever he is recovering, and goes back to a town he left years before. It is very likely that the people in his community haven’t been thinking about Iraq or Afghanistan or the men and women who serve there. How will he be welcomed back?

I wonder about the former helicopter pilot who was shot down and has been learning how to walk again. Does the community she left remember her? Will she be welcomed home not only as a hero, but also as a productive citizen?

This nation has gone through radical changes since the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in how it responds to its troops. For whatever reason, our troops today are accorded the respect they have earned, and do not face the antipathy many Vietnam veterans experienced. That’s a good thing, and it reflects well on Americans.

But one thing is apparent to those of us who deal with our service men and women nearly everywhere they serve. This nation has not come to grips with the fact that hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens are serving in harm’s way, and sometimes they become a casualty of war.

Those who serve ask little of us. A simple expression of thanks and to be accepted and given the chance to prove their worth is often more than enough. They want to continue to contribute.

So, on this Memorial Day, we honor those no longer with us. But, let’s also take a moment and thank those who do return and offer them our gratitude and the opportunity to have full and productive lives.

This essay is also available online from The Hill.