War Casualties and the Emptiness Left Behind

The first reply to my post On Memorial Day, Remember the Mothers, Children, Wives and Lovers Too was from a high school teacher. She remembered Sgt. Ronald Kubik, one of the soldiers featured in the story. She had him in her English class.

A month ago Kubik died in Afghanistan. His teacher wrote:

It seems like yesterday that I taught him, but in reality, 7 years have passed since the last day of his freshman year. Ron’s passing has really hit me hard. I might not have seen him in over 4 years (he always stopped by to visit even after he moved and graduated) but I am still having difficulty coming to terms with his untimely death.

I don’t know when I first began to care about soldiers. In school I read All Quiet on the Western Front, so I understood the axiom “war is hell.” In college I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a more civilian tragedy. I’d had no idea life could get that bad. “I’m so lucky,” I said to a friend. “I have a home. I have food.”

Perhaps my interest began in 1994, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. I watched one program after another, and read harrowing stories about the Normandy invasion, later depicted in ferocious, heart-breaking detail in the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” and previously by veteran and historian S.L.A. Marshall in First Wave at Omaha Beach.

After learning about the horrors of World War II, I wrote a letter to my uncle, Louis B. Read, a survivor of the Bataan Death March as well as slave labor in the Mitsubishi Hosokura mine. I thanked Uncle Louis for his service in the war. My generation owed his a great debt, I told him.

I had books and film, but I assumed I’d never really understand the plight of soldiers and their families. I was wrong. In 2001 advanced ovarian cancer was diagnosed in me. After that, every single day — for years — I was afraid.

The bottomless sorrow etched on the faces of grieving families resonated, too. Yes, I thought, that’s what it is, not the forced gaiety I’d observed in cancer survivor circles. Like the loved ones of fallen soldiers, I wanted to reverse time. I wanted to forever be who I was a year before, and never move forward to my disastrous present.

In 2007 I came across John Moore’s award-winning, and now iconic, photograph of Mary McHugh at the grave of her fiance, James Regan. The scene was somehow familiar to me. I could have been the soldier, now in my grave. I could have been the sobbing fiancee, too. I had no choice but to go on with my life, but I’d never be the same.

On Memorial Day readers were moved by Moore’s photograph, and also the story of pregnant widow Katherine Cathey. One man wrote:

My twin brother and I were only six months old when my mother received the same message that my father 1st Lt. Fred S Andes had been killed in a B29 crash. I was too young at the time to know the devastation that caused my mother and my families, but would live with the pain of his death for the last 65 years. The pain comes and goes, but is always waiting for a moment of remembrance. He is and always will be my hero.

In what was almost an echo, another man wrote:

As a WWII war orphan, thank you for your article concerning those left behind. Sixty-five years later, it still hurts. War orphans never move on.

A woman wrote:

I lost my father in WWII, at the age of 12 weeks old and never had the opportunity to know this wonderful man. I have known his mother, father, brothers, sisters, cousins and have heard many stories, but for some reason in these twilight years, it has really hurt. Yes, mom remarried when I was 5 and has been married for 61 years to a great step-dad, but I feel a small empty spot for “dad.”

Another woman told a long, sweet tale. Her brother was severely wounded in Germany in 1944. In his honor she attended a Memorial Day event, and that’s where she met her future husband. He served in the military for 29 years, from WWII through Vietnam.

On this Memorial Day, 66 years later, through tears on my old and wrinkling cheeks, I still remember him with love. I also feel the loneliness and loss of my late husband, my brother, and all those who have gone. It is for this reason, that I felt the need to finally share with someone the emptiness left behind when one of our heroes pays the highest price for our freedoms. God bless the USA and may she live proudly for many years to come. God bless the many journalists such as yourself who bring such beauty to our lives and remind us of who we are and why we come to have the most wonderful country in the world (and I have seen a few).

OK, that’s my flag-waving for today. Well, almost. A 74-year-old man, who flew eight flags in front of his home on Memorial Day, wrote:

I sat in front of the PC and just cried . . . for all of the wives, girlfriends, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters of our warriors who died. God bless them all.

Just one more flag, from a grateful woman in Florida:

At a school program last week, a young Lt. Colonel presented the school with a flag that she had flown over a palace in Baghdad, in our honor. She spoke to us, giving US HER THANKS! She thanked us for caring for her daughter while she was away for a year, and for the way we care for all of our military families.

Not all the mail was positive. One reader thought he “was going to vomit” after reading my post. He explained:

We lost over 50,000 in Nam and 1,000 or so thus far in Afghanistan. One loss is painful, of course, but this is a staggering difference. Yet when troops returned home from Nam they were cursed at, pelted with eggs, tomatoes etc with the streets lined with protesters AGAINST the soldiers.

Point taken. Our country should never forget the disrespect and neglect we showed soldiers returning from Vietnam, as though they were personally responsible for an ill-fated and unpopular foreign policy.

A female soldier made this complaint:

The article, meant to remember our fallen service members, had one glaring omission. There was no mention of the sacrifices of the women veterans. Having served in the U.S. Army for 14 years, I am struck by this slight.

I was concerned that all three of the soldiers in my post were young white men. Because of that, I noted that our war dead are “men and women, teenagers and grandfathers, all races, all religions, from all parts of the country.” Politically incorrect or not, as a writer I had to go with my gut. Sgt. Regan, Sgt. Kubik and Lt. Cathey were the soldiers I’d read about, and theirs were the pictures I’d seen.

But I’m sympathetic. I’d previously written about women soldiers in “Women in Uniform: Eight Who Fell and One Who Steps Forward.” For decades women have served in the military despite discrimination and other obstacles that are only now beginning to diminish.

On the flip side of that coin, a male reader fumed that women would even be mentioned on Memorial Day, when only men are required to register with Selective Service.

[It is] MEN who have borne a grossly disproportionate burden of death, injury and suffering in America’s wars. Males account for nearly all 400,000 Americans killed in World War II, virtually all 54,000 Americans killed in the Korean War and virtually all 58,000 Americans killed in the Vietnam War.

This gentleman had a point on the Selective Service, but then he had to go and ruin it with a vituperative rant on how “selfish” and “hypocritical” women are. I wish he could have polled a few hundred grieving mothers today. He’d be hard-pressed to find even one who would not gladly trade places with her dead son.

Another reader raised this cogent point:

Many of the soldiers were killed on their 3rd or 4th deployment. Why? Why so many deployments? Why has Congress not set a limit on combat tours? Four tours in 3 years! We need the press to start asking these questions. I am preparing for yet another deployment and worried when my luck will run out.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Now would be a good time to reveal I’m a pacifist. But that’s easy for me to say, isn’t it? I don’t have to make the day-to-day choices of men and women engaged in battle. I will admit this: If my own personal enemy — cancer — was a soldier standing before me, I would not hesitate to waste him. Or at least I would try.

One woman wrote of my Memorial Day post:

I cried, and I’ll bet you cried while you were writing it. I don’t have anyone in any of the conflicts. I just care, I guess.

As should we all.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
This entry was posted in Cancer and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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