Memorial Day is hard on returned soldiers, says veteran, author and PBS host Wes Moore. Here, Moore shares memories from his first Memorial Day after serving in Afghanistan — and reveals the one thing we all should do to honor veterans and their families this holiday.
When I was a kid, Memorial Day was a day off from school, a time for a barbecue with friends, and a reminder that in a few short weeks, summer vacation would start. I wasn’t from a military family, so I didn’t have a personal connection.
But serving in the military was attractive to me, so I joined the Army after graduating high school. In 2005, I was called up to serve, and deployed to Afghanistan.
Until you board a helicopter with your weapon locked and loaded, war is an abstract concept; you think you know what it’s going to be like, but you have no idea. Peril lurks at every corner. Some of your friends don’t survive.
When you lose a fellow soldier, you pay tribute by placing his boots side-by-side, standing a rifle behind them and balancing the soldier’s helmet and goggles on top of the gun. I remember every roll call after we lost a member of our unit. When a soldier’s name is read and no one answers, the silence is deafening.
Whether you’re conscious of it or not, combat changes you. I was excited to go home in May 2006. All I could think about for months was seeing my family and friends. But I was also naïve. That first Memorial Day after my return, I wandered the grocery store in a daze, remembering the faces of fallen friends. The shoppers milling around me looking for hamburger rolls seemed unaware of the gravity of the day. It was disheartening. It felt like they didn’t understand.
For many returned soldiers, Memorial Day can be one of the loneliest days of the year. I have a routine: I call my soldier friends scattered across the country, email military buddies serving overseas, and reach out to the loved ones of friends I’ve lost. It’s a small gesture. But for parents and spouses who never stop grieving the loss of a son, daughter, husband or wife, that phone call means more than words can say.
This year I’d like to invite every American to join me in my Memorial Day ritual. Reach out and get in touch with someone with a tie to the military. It could be a friend or a stranger, a recently returned veteran or a Gold Star widow. If you don’t know anyone in the military, there are programs that can help you connect.
It’s okay to go out and have fun at a barbecue. We should all enjoy the holiday. But let’s also take that extra step and thank our heroes. Set aside a moment to show your appreciation—and remember the true meaning of the day.
Army veteran and bestselling author Wes Moore’s new series chronicling the challenges of returning veterans, “Coming Back with Wes Moore,” can be streamed online at video.pbs.org. For information on military pen pal programs and other ways to help veterans and their families, visit operationgratitude.com or uso.org.