Not every Service Member who dies does so in combat. Sometimes it is in an environment you would think to be completely safe, in the barracks, on base, or at home. Sometimes it isn’t violent. When Memorial Day comes around it’s very easy to remember the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who gave their lives in combat zones.
When I was stationed on Camp Foster in Okinawa, I had a friend who was a good Marine. He was good at his job and even better at making friends. He liked to party and sometimes got himself into trouble, though to be honest there were very few Marines who didn’t get in trouble at least once. He was an overall wonderful guy whom everyone liked.
One day I was at the house of an Air Force friend who lived off base. A few of us were spending the weekend there in order to get away from on-base life for a couple of days. It was early in the morning when I received a phone call from another Marine in my unit asking me if I had seen my friend at all that weekend. I had not. They asked me to call them if I did. I said okay. Later that night I was back in my barracks room getting ready to turn in for the night when my roommate came in and told me they found him. He was dead.
It was the last thing that I, or anyone else for that matter, had expected. He was younger than me. Only 19. We weren’t in a combat zone. We weren’t deployed. We were on a beautiful island in the Asian-Pacific where we worked out early in the morning and worked in our shop from 7:30 in the morning to 5:30 in the afternoon and had weekends off. We shot our rifles for one week once a year in order to re-qualify. So how, in this safe place, was our friend dead?
The very little detail we were given was that he had a negative reaction to some pain medication he was taking while he recovered from a broken leg. We weren’t told any more than that. Maybe they didn’t even have any more than that to give us. They hadn’t done an autopsy yet. I never got the rest of the details.
It didn’t take us long to put together a memorial for our friend on base. Those few days are kind of a blur now, but I remember the memorial. I remember bringing flowers and helping set up. I remember the video that was played with pictures of his life. I remember crying when a picture of the two of us came up. We were in our Dress Blues attending a Marine Corps Birthday Ball.
I also remember a few of us standing at attention in formation as the casket was carried to a vehicle that would take my friend’s body to the airport. I remember the look on his father’s face. It was a very sad look. He was crying, but it was a calm and quiet sort of crying. The sort of crying you do when you’re trying to be strong and barely succeeding. As I stood at attention I could only imagine what this father was thinking. When your child joins the Armed Forces you have to accept the chance they might not come home alive. But if that day comes, you expect it to happen during deployments in combat situations. I could imagine this father being confused and angry on top of the sadness. His son was never deployed. His son was not a grunt, but an office worker. His son died in a barracks at the age of 19 because of a medical situation.
I think of my friend often. I remember his smile and his laugh. I don’t think he knew what a bad day was, even when he was in trouble. I’ve thought about him more this weekend. I see all of these posts on Social Media for Memorial Day. People are planning BBQs and parties on lakes. People are honoring service members who gave everything for their country. People are remembering mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, and friends who came home from deployments with flags draped over their coffins.
All of these things are happening and I wonder. Do they remember the ones who died at home or the ones who died not among bullets, but from natural causes or accidents? Some, more than I care to think about, die by their own hands. Do we remember them? They may not have died fighting terrorists but they died heroes nonetheless. Heroes who volunteered their lives for their country regardless of how those lives ended.
So as Memorial Day comes around I have a simple request. Enjoy your BBQs and your lake parties and as you do please open an extra beer. Pour an extra shot. Set an extra place at the table. Remember the men and women who served and can no longer be here. I will.