WASHINGTON—Memorial Day is hard upon us, and hard on us as well.
While most Americans celebrate the holiday as the first long weekend of summer, the rest of us will be honoring the sacrifice of countless American lives during 230 years of our nation's history. Winning our independence was bloody work; defending our freedom has been even bloodier.
We are a nation at war this year, just as we have been for the last five years since the terror attacks on innocent American citizens on Sept. 11, 2001. We are at war, but who among us knows the true cost of war, and who pays the price?
The answer to that question is, of course, our living veterans of wars.
All but 50 of the 5 million veterans of World War I are gone from among us. Only about 3.5 million of 16 million American veterans of World War II are still alive. Some 3.2 million veterans of the Korean War are still alive. About 2.5 million of the 3.4 million who served in the Vietnam War theater are still living.
They surely know the true cost of war.
The knowledge of that cost is borne even more keenly by the widows and children, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters of those who gave their lives in battle in our country's wars.
There are so many of them, and more coming with each passing day in the wars we are fighting now.
The children of war, especially, have so large a claim on our hearts. They have lost fathers, and now even their mothers, in today's wars. The estimate is that Iraq alone has left 3,000 children without one parent or with no parent at all.
This Memorial Day I will be thinking particularly of the five children of the two Army pilots of a Kiowa Warrior helicopter shot down in Mosul, Iraq, on Jan. 13. Their fathers, CWO3 Mitchell K. Carver Jr., 31, of Leicester, N.C., and CWO2 Kyle E. Jackson, 28, of Sarasota, Fla., were flying cover for a small three-vehicle patrol of Stryker armored vehicles at the time.
I was riding in one of those Strykers at the time and was at the crash site within minutes. I watched their broken bodies were gently eased out of the shattered helicopter—Carver already dead, Jackson alive but barely. He died on the way to the hospital.
At that moment I knew that within a matter of a few hours Army sedans with a chaplain and a casualty notification officer would be pulling up outside houses bearing the news that would shatter happy lives. I knew that those young children would carry holes in their hearts all their lives—holes where a father was supposed to dwell.
This Memorial Day I will also think of the four children of my friend SFC David Salie of the 3rd Infantry Division who was killed a year ago on Valentine's Day, only hours after he arrived in Iraq on his first combat tour in that war. Salie had parachuted into Panama with the 82nd Airborne, fought in the Persian Gulf War and deployed in Haiti.
His daughter is a budding writer and poet. Her mother, Deanna, shares some of Chynna's writing with me from time to time. I keep photos of Carver and Jackson, and David Salie and his family on my wall to remind me of them—to remind me of what wars cost—every day.
My friend Karen Spears Zacharias lost her father, Sgt. David Spears, in Vietnam in 1966 when she was 9. She's written a book about what that one death among 58,250 in that war did to the lives of her mother, her two siblings and herself. It's out in paperback with a new title: "After the Flag Has Been Folded."
She travels around the country talking to new widows and their heart-broken children. She knows their pain firsthand. She tries to help them understand that they are not alone. If nothing else she can cry with them over all they have lost.
So this Memorial Day think of all our fallen servicemen in America's wars. But think especially of those innocents they left behind—so filled with pride, so filled with grief, so filled with pain. They are there in many American cities and towns.
Reach out to them. Tell them you thank them for their family's great sacrifice. Tell them we grieve with them. Offer them any help they need. Tell them they are not alone.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young