By Team NIA
On this special hallowed day, whereon we honor American military women and men who gave the full measure of sacrifice – their lives, we wanted to explore deeper feelings about freedom than usually expressed or debated. So, we engaged candid conversations with very different people among our constituency of families and advocates about the full and broad meaning of Memorial Day.
Among those conversations that stand out most was the one we conducted with the returning citizen we will refer to here as James. Like the others, we asked James, what does Memorial Day mean, if anything, to a person who has lived as an incarcerated American? Before James could ponder the question, he quickly snapped, “Let me first thank you for feeling that I have value enough to be asked the question.” When pushed to explain, he went on to say, “No one would ever have a conversation with me about a real citizen kind of thing like that. But I guess I can relate to hope. Until release got real, I lived all those years totally without hope. Yes, I can relate to that. Without hope, there can be no real freedom.”
His answer helped us better understand Derrick’s response. “After a while in prison, the system is sure to make you feel excommunicated from hope, dreams and freedoms. And in too many cases, once excommunicated in any way, you might always be excommunicated in some ways from the full American dream. Aside from that, I don’t think I feel Memorial Day any different from any other American. I’d like to be reintegrated in that respect too – just another American deserving their sacrifice. In spite of my mistakes, and just because I’m American too.”
A young millennial still caught up in a mandatory minimum nightmare quipped lightheartedly, “Means no lunch on the holiday.” Then his tone got serious, “I think of Grandpa, a WWII Purple Heart Vet. My whole view is different now,” he continued. “They laid down their lives for something they think of as freedom when in fact it is too often a fight for a government agenda. Then, even more so, I feel badly for the families of those who gave their lives.” Cautious not to publish any sentiment that might be perceived as negative about the Day, this comment gave us pause. At least until we talked to a vet, a soldier who helped us see debate and discontent from the battle field level of tear-filled eyes that honor our fallen and more importantly, that honor those freedoms for which they died.
Those freedoms include the freedom to express what you feel, and in doing so, assert the freedom to disagree, to challenge and change our country for the common good. Even the Day itself came together from contending ideologies. When the original Decoration Day honoring fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War was merged with other Confederate holiday traditions to establish what years later became Memorial Day.
But back to the vet. A Vietnam era soldier who often has a lot to say and never hesitates to exclaim how his losses have earned him the right to say what he feels. “After getting over the shock I was going to be in the penitentiary for a lot longer than I was in the war, I started to realize that I had also forfeited all I had fought for. Just threw it all away.” He went silent for a long moment and we sat still to give him that pensive space. Then he raised his head, took a big breath and continued. “I guess I want people to know that while they certainly fought for country, they died protecting their buddies.”
Perhaps the greatest wish of the fallen hero would be to continue to care for their buddies – those still alive, still struggling to adjust. To make things right and to make them whole. Perhaps the fullest measure of honoring this Day, is the full open debate of what the Day means, should mean and could mean to us all. That we memorialize the full measure of the soldier’s sacrifice by affording him and her the full measure of repair, reform and reintegration for every page – bright and dark – of their enduring journey.