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Memorial Day, the Veterans Celebration of the Day of the Dead

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Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, is meant as a day to remember all those who have died while in military service. This Memorial Day I think it important that you remember the day from a military mind. It is not about you or your vacation. Memorial Day is about the dead and dying. 

Memorial Day is not about parades or hot dogs to us veterans, though you will see some of us in those parades. Like our days in service, we do that not because we want to but because it is expected of us. Usually, after that parade is done we retire to our clubhouses--Legion posts, AmVet posts, VFW posts or Elk Lodges--and eat as much as we can, drink, tell stories and look at pictures of our buddies. 

We try not to dwell on the weird parts of our experiences, but sometimes I think we need to share those so you civilian folks get a clearer taste of how hard life can get while in service. I will share with you some stories so when you remember veterans and call us heroes, you will think about the words you chose and envision what the life of an active service member is actually like. And what their death is like as well. Because, after all, Decoration Day was, and Memorial Day is, about those who have served and died. 

In 1975, I was assigned to the regular Corps, to a battalion and company that still had a significant number of Vietnam combat vets in the ranks finishing out their tour. I arrived at Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Mar Div. sometime in late October. Racial issues were still a big problem at that time, a holdover from the days of racial segregation then racial integration. On the grounds of the company barracks a huge brawl was going on. It looked like blacks fighting whites. Or the other way around. Either way, I avoided the mayhem and went into the barracks. 

I was assigned a bunk and unpacked. The barracks were loud with chatter and four kinds of music: Country and Western and R and B. The smell of pot filled the air and there was much snorting noise. Unlike the mayhem outside, everyone was getting along inside. The fine lines of reality were quite real. 

One night, maybe a month or two after I got to the company, one of the Nam vets tried to hang himself. He was a heroin addict. His girlfriend who was a Navy nurse dumped him. It turned out she was also his source of morphine. In our barracks we slept on bunk beds. My buddy slept on a top bunk. One night he woke because his bunk was rocking. I could hear it. My buddy looked over at the foot of his rack, the source of the rocking and there was a rope and it was moving. He leaned over and there was a handsome fellow. 

He had a rope around his neck and managed to loop it over the foot of my buddy’s rack and he was pulling on it. Well, anyone who knows anything can tell you that you cannot kill yourself that way. Your reflexes will not allow it; once you begin to lose consciousness you let go of the rope and you do not die. This guy pissed my buddy off, because while he was trying to do this thing he was crying and whimpering. Very annoying and it kept my buddy up. This went on for a few minutes. Until my buddy asked this fellow what his problem was and could he please solve it somewhere else. 

The guy with the problem started to explain what he was doing and why and before he was finished speaking my bud grabbed the rope, braced his feet at the foot of his rack and pulled with all his strength. He had the guy lifting off the floor. He had the guy with the problem where he thought he wanted to be. After the incident my bud said that he wasn’t trying to kill him. He wanted to scare the heck out of him to show him life is better than death. My bud believed he was helping the poor dumb bastard. I heard the fellow never tried to kill himself again. 

That night I learned a knew way to look at "tough love."

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We never saw that guy again. I imagine he got a medical discharge. Soon after we were sailing with the 6th Fleet to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Beruit, Lebanon, along with their friendly nationals (spies). It was 1975 and that guy with the problem was not with us. And thank God for that. 

During World War II, Marine Corps Captain William Cook flew Hellcats in the Pacific Theater throughout the island jumping campaigns. He was an ace combat pilot and managed to come home safely. But, not until after crashing his plane once and getting shot in the back by a Japanese sniper. He married and began building a family, with four children. He entered Dartmouth College using his G.I. Bill education benefits and graduated. 

Soon after, the Korean War began and he was called back into active service. He was assigned to train Marine Corps pilots at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina. One day while training a young Marine pilot, their plane crash-landed. As the plane and all its fuel was burning he threw the trainee pilot out of the plane, saving his life before he himself was engulfed in flames. Suffering 3rd degree burns over 90 percent of his body, he died a miserable, horrible death. His nerve endings were exposed to the air, pushing him into dilerium. He died not of the burns, though. He died because without skin one’s body cannot retain water. He died of dehydration. That is how burn victims die. But, they do not die fast enough to escape the pain. If you are a military pilot, most likely that is how you will die, burning to death. Or as a prisoner. 

At the time, the average life span of a combat pilot was measured in minutes not hours. 

The average life span of a combat machine gunner is also measured in minutes. In 1975 it was 6 minutes. Maybe the timing is better today, probably not. If your son or daughter is a combat machine gunner, you'd better say goodbye now. You will most likely not get a second chance. 

After the Battle of Saipan during World War II, Mohawk Indian Andy Cook was riding in the back of an Army Jeep. The beach was not yet cleared of land mines. He and two others, including his squad leader, were on an errand. The rear tire of the Jeep touched off a land mine. A piece of shrapnel took off a piece of Andy’s skull in the back of his head. The Jeep overturned and the three managed to survive. They lifted themselves off the ground. The squad leader asked, “Cookie, you ok?” 

Uncle Andy said, “Yea, I’m alright.” And then fell over dead, right there, a teenager, never to come home again. And for his buddies, there was no retribution. 

My great great, great, great grandfather was Colonel Louis Cook. He was half black slave and half Algonquin/Mohegan. His gift was that he spoke 4 languages fluently, making him in his later years very valuable. During the French and Indian War, when he was a child, he and his mother were captured by the French. An officer wanted to take Louis as a slave and trade his mother. But a Mohawk war party intervened and brought Louis and his mother to Mohawk country, to Kahnawake. He eventually moved to Akwesasne. 

Louis grew up and became a Lt. Colonel while fighting for George Washington. One of the few Mohawks to ally with the Colonists. His legacy of reserving lands for the Mohawks lives on. Akwesasne owes its continued existence to that man. The Lt. Colonel was killed on the Niagara Frontier and buried there, never to come home again. 

Yes, Memorial Day is good for the hot dog and beer industry, but for those of us who served or sent our children to serve or had relatives that served and died.... Well, it is a different kind of day. One of remembrance and serious reflection on the ultimate price people pay for the unselfish service they gave to a country of fickle acknowledgement, be it those service members either died or went crazy.