Memorial Day 2006: For Those Who Survived, The Memories of Those Who Perished

Today I thought it appropriate to share this piece by my good friend, IAVA member veteran Mike Zacchea, a Marine Reserve Officer who helped train the first Iraqi Army batallion and was wounded in the Battle of Fallujah in November 2004.

Memory is painful. The more I remember, the more it hurts. There is a deep, dark part of me that would rather not remember.

I was speaking to some veterans recently, from a variety of American conflicts. World War II. Korea. Viet Nam. The Gulf. And most recently, Iraq. They all admitted to similar feelings.

I spent a year in Iraq, from March 2004 to March 2005. Alone with my memories, I find myself starting to forget. I re-read my journal and saved e-mails to remember my experiences in Iraq, and the people I shared them with. I look at the pictures we took.

As soon as I am finished, the images and names begin to fade from my mind. Particularly of the fellows with whom I served who were grievously wounded or killed. It's a weird phenomenon, one veterans of other wars have experienced. When a soldier or Marine is killed or grievously wounded in Iraq, it is the crisis of the moment - in the context of the event, whether an attack, and IED, a mortar or rocket attack, any number of ways the insurgents have figured out to kill the best and brightest America has to offer. And everyone around the unfortunate soldier or Marine responds with a sense of urgency appropriate to saving the life that hangs in the balance. In a half hour, the wounded soldier or Marine is on his or her way to the nearest Combat Surgical Hospital. Within 24 hours, he or she is being flown to Germany.

And that's the last we know of them, at least while we're in theater. Then we move on to the next immediate crisis, the next attack, the next suicide bombing. There might be some quiet talk, maybe a prayer for the departed soldier or Marine, and then the moving soldier's tribute to their fallen comrades. One day they are there, the next day they are not. And we move on to the next crisis.

I'm told that the fading of memory is a defense mechanism. I can understand that. How could any of us go on another convoy after seeing one of our own ripped to shreds and burnt by an IED, if we held the images in our minds? How could any of us raid an insurgent hide-out if we were thinking about a comrade shot in the face at close range by an AK-47?

Then there is the guilt. In our secret hearts, all of us say a silent prayer, thanking God it wasn't us. And that is not fair to those left behind of the soldiers and Marines killed or wounded, the parents and spouses and children, those left to try to put back together their shattered lives, and left with their own memories. The guilt is leisurely, because no one is shooting at us. There are no IEDs when we drive on the highways. We have the rest of our lives to feel guilty, and to grieve. In war, the guilt is assuaged by the immediate task at hand, the next mission, and its inherent danger. It could be any one of us next time.

Memorial Day is difficult for me, because memory is painful. It hurts to think of the men I served with who were killed, or traumatically wounded. Dylan Thomas wrote in his elegiac poem Fern Hill:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying

That single fragment of poem captures in less than twenty words the essence of Memorial Day, and the anguish of the veteran; my own anguish. In my memory, Time holds them green and dying, bright against the drab brown of the Iraqi desert, in the heat and glare of that bitterly hostile land.

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