Next Monday, May 27th, is Memorial Day. While many of us see this as the "official" beginning of summer with neighborhood pools opening this weekend and most of us grilling dinner outside, it is easy to overlook the real purpose of this day: Remembering those who died while in service to this country.
Eighteen months ago, I went to the burial ceremony of one of my college roommates, Dave Wiersma, at Arlington National Ceremony. Being buried in Arlington is a rarity today as they are running out of gravesites so actually being buried and not interred at Arlington is a great honor.
To fully appreciate what happened, let me offer a bit of background. Dave and I were both members of Hotel Squadron, Second Group of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. Virginia Tech and Texas A & M are the only two schools left that maintain a full-time cadet corps within a civilian university. There are civilian military academies-Virginia Military Institute, The Citadel, and Norwich-but there are no non-cadets attending those schools. Those of us who attend colleges with a cadet corps tend to be a tighter knit group than most college graduates.
Dave was a year ahead of me, so during my freshman fall semester he was one of the sophomores who contributed to making my life difficult. We wound up as roommates the following semester. While most of us in the Second Group were Air Force ROTC, me included, Dave was one of the few Army cadets (the Navy program had just started up my freshman year and were just starting to make their presence known). But branch of service didn't matter as much as what unit you belonged to; while class cohesion was preeminent, your unit mattered. Those were the people you were closest too (literally as you lived in the rooms next to each other). Now Dave and I weren't particularly close, but when I heard from the Corps Alumni Officer that Dave had passed from brain cancer while still on active duty and was being buried in Arlington, I decided that I would attend. I expected that there would be about 12 of in attendance.
I was wrong. Half of Dave's classmates came to the funeral. My wife, who was in Foxtrot Squadron was there, as were some of our classmates from Echo, Foxtrot, and Golf Squadrons. There were alums from 1st Battalion as well. Most of us lived on the east coast, but there was even someone from the freshman class of Dave's junior year, who had flown in from Missouri to attend. There was about 25-30 of us from the Corps who came to remember Dave.
Here's the thing that struck me the most. Almost none of us had been in contact with Dave since graduation. Most of us were Navy or Air Force officers so would not have run into him during our careers. Those had seen Dave after graduation had only seen Dave briefly and in passing. Dave's wife, who he had met after leaving school, did not realize what an important part of his life the Corps had been and was amazed by the number of us who attended his funeral.
Dave had all the good characteristics we expect our military officers to possess. He was honest and straight forward; he was a man of principle who would not compromise his core beliefs, even when ridiculed about them; maybe he abided by the rules a little too strictly, but in doing so he set a standard that pushed the rest of us to be a bit better than our natures would have us be.
None of us knew Dave for more than four years, most of us for less, yet some how we all felt it was important for us to attend his funeral thirty years later. None of know what kind of lasting impact we will have on the people we meet. Those who have died while serving this country, and there are many who most-or possibly none-of us know nothing about or even know their names, deserve better from us than just treating Memorial Day as the first day of summer. Yes, Memorial Day can mark that, but we have forgotten to instill in these recent generations the importance of sacrifice and what it means to truly serve. Hell, when we look at current state of government and its inability to accomplish anything of significance, it seems our leaders have forgotten this as well.
But people like Dave, they will not be forgotten. There are still some of us who know what it means to serve. And we should not forget those who have died in that service. That is the purpose of Memorial Day.