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Memorial Day: A Time for Recollection and Reflection, not Celebration.

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Memorial Day: A Time for Recollection and Reflection, not Celebration.

By John Lucas, USMA ’69  |  Substack
Army Ranger and Special Forces Green Beret; served with the 1st Calvary Division in Vietnam

Monday is Memorial Day. As a combat veteran, I always feel a bit awkward when someone wishes me “Happy Memorial Day.” I do not correct them and do not criticize them now because I know that they mean well. However, the friendly wishes stem from a misunderstanding of what Memorial Day is all about.

Memorial Day is to remember and honor our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who have been killed in action serving this country and its people. It is a time for reflection and more than a little sadness, not joy.

One of the things that I would ask you to reflect upon this Memorial Day is the sacrifice made by those whom we honor.

I don’t mean just to take a few minutes to acknowledge that they died too young, and then return to your grilling, water skiing, partying, or whatever. Dig deeper.

Here is a suggestion that everyone can do: Set aside 30 minutes to visit the Wall of Faces. It includes photos and memorials of all those killed in Vietnam. Pick a date, perhaps your birthday, wedding anniversary, college graduation, or whatever. Then look at the men who died on that date throughout the years of the Vietnam war. See their photos. Read the comments by family, friends, and comrades. Then reflect on the things that they forfeited. Almost all of them would now be in their 70s or 80s. They all missed out on the things that you and I have enjoyed for the last 50 to 60 years. Days of joy and laughter, days of sorrow and tears, everything that makes up life.

You may find that you want to spend more than a half hour there. You may even find yourself going back for subsequent visits on later days. I hope so.

Here is a short sketch about one such soldier whose name is carved on the Wall. Garney Burleson was a farm boy from North Carolina. He is not famous. You will not read about him anywhere other than here. He was killed in killed in action on January 28, 1971, in Binh Tuy Province, Vietnam. He was twenty.

Garney is buried in the cemetery of a small country church outside of Asheville, NC. No immediate family members survive him today. Not parents, not siblings. He never had any children. At the time of his death, Garney had been in Vietnam for about three months. He was on his second platoon leader, his first having been medically evacuated after being seriously wounded.

Garney kept a cool head under fire. On one occasion he was lying on the ground behind a tree during a firefight. Keeping his body behind the tree, he held his rifle around it and fired at the North Vietnamese only a few yards away. An enemy soldier returned fire, hitting Garney’s exposed rifle. The bullet hit the front sight-blade of his M-16 and then travelled all the way down the length of his rifle to take out the rear sight also. Obviously, if Garney had been looking through the sights, the bullet would have pierced his head. Unperturbed, Garney held up his damaged but still-operable rifle for a nearby soldier to see, smiled and calmly said, “They’re shooting pretty close today, aren’t they.”

Garney’s last platoon leader was scant feet away from him when he was killed and carried his body to an evacuation helicopter that was able to descend through a small opening in the trees. On Memorial Day 2018, that platoon leader made the trip from Knoxville, Tennessee, to his fallen soldier’s gravesite.

The platoon leader was a bit distressed at what he found at the church and cemetery. He had thought that perhaps he might stumble upon a memorial service held by the church, or at least other mourners at the cemetery on Memorial Day. That was not to be. He was alone.

Garney’s grave was not particularly well-tended. Although there were several others buried there who could be identified as veterans from their headstones, the church had not made an effort to honor them in any way on Memorial Day, not even with something as simple as placing a small American flag on their gravesites.

The platoon leader left briefly to go to a nearby store to purchase a small American flag, and some flowers. He then returned and then placed them on Garney’s grave. He then penned a hasty note to his former soldier, encased it in a protective plastic bag, and left it at the tombstone, held down with a small stone. He could only hope that by virtue of God’s grace, Garney would know what it said and that he was not forgotten.

Please join me on Memorial Day in remembering him, and the other fallen from all wars, whose sacrifice we remember and honor this Memorial Day.

This is the note the platoon leader left for Garney.


First published on John’s Brave Blue Substack

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