I spent today at work covering a Memorial Day ceremony and fell into talking with a couple of Air Force vets about their experience in Vietnam. That got me thinking about the vets in my own family: Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army going all the way back to the Revolutionary War (hello, Moses Winters!). Along the way, two of them died in uniform (that I know of; there may have been more in previous centuries). We still have some in the younger generations in the services, but not as many as were in the older generations.
Then there’s this: 1.2 million U.S. service members have died in wartime since the founding of the republic. Their stories stopped then, ended by a bullet or a bombshell or bacteria or just bad luck, but the end result is the same: Here ended a life. Yet many more people survived war than died in it, and those survivors carried their memories forward.
Old soldiers don’t necessarily fade away, they just begin to look like everyone else, perhaps with better posture. But they’ve all got stories, and most of those never get told unless you ask them. They may not want to tell them — that’s understandable. But I’m willing to guess that many never get asked.
There was an essay I read and posted here some time ago about how it seems the “thank-you-for-your-service” line has become almost a reflex, a politeness that may be sincerely felt, yet still glosses over the myriad experiences our men and women in uniform have. I’ve heard it delivered one-to-one and also over a p.a. system: “We’ll now board active duty members of our military. Thank you for your service.” OK. That’s a nice gesture, but that’s kind of missing the point in some ways. People don’t join the service to get priority boarding at the airport.
I think the way to avoid that problem is to actively seek out and hear those service members’ stories, understand what exactly it is you’re thanking them for, and what they did for the sake of all the rest of us. I admit I’m a bit prejudiced in this regard: I tell stories for a living and I come from a family with a lot of military experience. But the thing that drives me most in telling stories — of all kinds, whether they’re about the military or schoolkids or animals or anything else — is getting at what is “true” about them: not just getting the facts right (although that’s important too), but knowing how to best understand the experiences of others and render them into words so that others might also understand them in the same manner.
From a writer’s perspective, these are the tools of the trade: setting a scene, developing mood and so on. The end result is about putting your reader or listener into another place and time and helping them understand what others have seen and heard.
I never piloted a helicopter, got shot out of the sky, felt terror in a foxhole or gotten doused with defoliant in the jungle, but I’ve known people who have. And while Memorial Day is about remembering the fallen, and I’m talking about people who are still with us, I think hearing the stories of the living is another way of honoring those who gave their lives in the service of the country. The fallen aren’t here to tell their own stories any more, but others can still carry those stories forward. It’s incumbent on all of us to listen.