Family & Friends · Health

Memorial Day: A Day To Remember Those Who Died In Active Military Service and Those Left Traumatized

Ken Burns follows the young soldiers from Luverne, Minnesota, Mobile, Alabama, Sacramento, California and Waterbury, Connecticut throughout the war. Then he interviews the “lucky” ones who made it home.  They were in their old age when they discussed  their experiences in that long ago war. The themes of their memories  were of horror,  loss, personal control, and exposure to dehumanizing experiences. These men could still not forget the needless loss of lives and injuries that never went away, even if those injuries were no longer  visible.

These men, in their 80s and 90s, still talked about the recurring nightmares, the unexpected flashbacks, the isolation that they had endured after the war was over. No one knew they carried reels and reels of memories  filled with the sounds of shelling, shooting, screaming, and the constant refrain of death. They carried these memories locked up in their minds because the “other” Americans who stayed at home didn’t want to know or could never comprehend the places they  had been. They just wanted the boys to “get back to a normal life.”

Well, my father never found that normal life. He married my mother, a red-headed school teacher whose beat was the one-room schoolhouse, bought a farm and probably did his best to get back to “normal.” But the man he had been before the war was left buried there. The man who came home was a shell, haunted with nightmares, intolerance to loud noises, and filled with anger aimed at those in power and anyone who defied him. He died young at fifty-four.

Even though Memorial Day is a time to remember those who died in active military service, it is the day I remember the lost man who, like so many men and women who fought our wars, came home someone else.

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  • CECILIA FORD May 30, 2017 at 8:25 am

    Thank you for sharing this moving and intimate story. There was so much damage done to these men, and even though they were honored for their service it could not undo the losses they suffered. My own father was 4F because of a chronic illness, but both of my uncles served in the Pacific. One returned “shell-shocked” and spent the rest of his life in and out of VA hospitals. The other, who had been a pilot shot down twice, had steel plates, etc. but the emotional damage was worse. He divorced, lived alone, worked at dull jobs and drank until he found AA in his forties. He never remarried, and he never spoke about the War to anyone.
    Steven Speilberg and Tom Hanks produced two HBO series, “Band of Brothers,” and “The Pacific,” both based on real vets who appear in the prologue of each episode. They are the finest war movies I have ever seen–the audience can see precisely the stakes in each battle and how the men were transformed by their experiences.