I used to think bagpipes were awesome.
Six years ago, my opinion changed. Six years ago I was standing resolutely at the position of attention, staring blankly at a pair of dog tags swaying in a warm Iraqi wind. Occasionally the dog tags would clink against the side of the rifle they were hanging from, which was ceremoniously inserted bayonet-first into a sandbag, and crowned with a dusty Kevlar helmet. In the background, over the hushed sobs of young men and the creaking of plywood floors, rose a tune. It was harsh at first, off key, but eventually it found its note and Amazing Grace soon echoed off the sandbags of our makeshift bunker. From start to finish every note resonated through our bodies, forcing us to think about the grace by which we'd been saved.
Over the course of four years in the Marine Corps, two combat tours, nearly forty comrades killed in action, and eight dead by their own hand, I have heard "Amazing Grace" emotionally played on bagpipes too many times for a man who has only just turned thirty. Their sound, to say the least, has lost its romantic appeal.
Memorial Day, as you'll hear many times over the next 24 hours, is more than just a day off and a ticket to wear white pants. It is a somber recognition of the sacrifice our young men and women, across generations, have made for our nation. If my eyes had been good enough that day six years ago, they would have seen the name Blake Howey stamped across those swaying dog tags. Blake was killed in front of me while our squad was responding on a quick-reaction mission in Iraq. He was young, good looking, and a helluva Marine. If he were alive today there's no doubt he would be well on his way to success. Blake, you see, is why we take a moment for Memorial Day.
But how? What could we possibly do on a day set aside to honor our nation's fallen that would do them justice? Last year I honored Blake by buying a case of beer and heading to the cemetery in Glendora, Calif. There I met with his mother and a handful of men we'd served with. We cracked a lot of beers and cracked even more jokes about the times we'd all shared. When our case of beer ran dry we did what any group of Marines would do -- we invaded a bar. Hours later we emerged intoxicated, tearful and all pondering the same question -- what are we doing that honors those who never came home?
You see, Memorial Day is as much about honoring those who have fallen as it is about reflecting inward and convincing ourselves, and our fallen brothers, that we deserve our lease on life. So again the question is, how?
We accomplish this -- honoring our fallen and ourselves -- by bearing the mantle of responsibility. We must observe the world around us and recognize that to be casual observers to the plight of our nation is to fail in our charge as military veterans. Rather, we must bear the burden of responsibility and take ownership of the actions needed to move this country in the right direction. Few know as well as our nation's war veterans the price of our beloved liberties, because they have seen the full accounting. It would be shameful to cheapen that price by not continuing on the path of duty, honor and country we swore to uphold while in uniform.
What does this look like in action? This Memorial Day Team Rubicon, a nonprofit organization that gives returning veterans a new mission through disaster response, is providing their fallen friends a tribute through service. In response to the Moore, Okla., tornadoes, Team Rubicon has activated hundreds of volunteers, mostly veterans, and sent them into the disaster zone to recover and rebuild a community in need. They are using the skills and experiences they learned for war and repurposing them for a noble cause -- service to others. These veterans are not only honoring the fallen, they are honoring themselves; and in the process leaving no doubt for our nation's civilians as to the caliber of men and women who came home in flag-draped caskets, with no future left but a lonely rendition of taps and a twenty-one gun salute.
Two years ago I sat in a quiet sanctuary in Houston, Tex., staring at the photo of a smiling friend. The stillness of the church was only interrupted by the tearful sniffling of over one thousand friends gathered to honor the life of Clay Hunt. Clay was one of my closest friends, and, unfortunately, one of the estimated twenty-two veterans per day that are committing suicide. Once again "Amazing Grace" rose on bagpipes from an unseen source, and suddenly the heavy arm of my close friend and fellow Marine draped over my shoulders. "I hate those damn bagpipes," he whispered under his breath.
After three minutes the last note squeaked from its pipe and the church went silent. Sitting there I pondered what the next move was going to be, and, for lack of anything better to say, I whispered back, "All that matters is what we do when the bagpipes end."
This Memorial Day think of Blake and of Clay. Think of the more than 5,000 men and women who have died in the last decade of war. Then think of what you are going to do to honor them today.