Memorial Day 2017
Talk to your local veterans. Learn their stories. Listen to them.
Veterans, please speak.
We need to hear of your friends… those left behind. Those you loved as only a warrior can. Those who your live as part of your heart and who’s memories carry on with you.
There is something I see in every veteran’s eye when they speak about those who they’re remembering. And I struggle with how to describe or approach it.
There is also the question of “Why? Why them and not me?”
I’ve tried to capture that in my fiction piece, ‘Ghost Unit’ – from my short story collection released last year, ‘Goldlust’.
He was one man covered in what appeared to be shame. His spine curved, hunching his frail body forward while a World War II enlisted man’s jacket hung precariously on his shriveled shoulders. His uniform no longer fit and his medals had tarnished with age. The ribbons were faded and partially crushed as if they’d been thrown in a drawer and forgotten. He was an old man and his hands quivered as he was pushed in his wheelchair down the street of the Memorial Day parade route.
Most people were at home having a cookout or shopping. The small crowd which was present were paying more attention to his granddaughters… the youngest, too short to push him in the right direction and running down the street with him, seeming to chase the wheelchair instead of guiding it, and the oldest too absorbed in what her friends might think of her company, to appreciate the moment. To the memory of men like him was the reason for this day. The sadness in his eyes and the silent scars on his soul which he’d kept locked away were the marks of a man who’d seen Hell, and had friends fall beside him. These were the ones who bore our freedom and took it against the enemy.
And here he was. The one man who survived. He looked out at the fields of tombstones and white crosses before him. He’d been in this town long enough to know those who lay here. Those who were just a name, two dates and maybe a star, had been his family, friends and neighbors.
He’d had a stroke, half his face drooped and his eyes watered – but there was a man inside that shell. A man who had served his country and whom we all needed to respect. This man held the memories of those whom we were honoring today. He was the only one left. A moan came from his mouth.
The older granddaughter scolded the younger, “Don’t rock him like that! You’ll break him!”
The cemetery sat on a hill on the outskirts of the town. At the top the banner of freedom, its stars and stripes waving against the clear blue sky was at half-mast. His old feeble hand rose to salute… and trembling he made it before one of his granddaughters forced the hand down.
The girls’ mother appeared and locked the wheelchair into place appearing weary and annoyed… whether it was at her daughters or the veteran I don’t know.
As a veteran myself, I struggled for a moment. I could step in and talk to the man, or I could let him stay in his memories.
Then I saw them. Gathered with the modern day civilians was a small unit from across time – welcoming their own. Revolutionary War heroes stood next to Confederate and Union soldiers, while World War I and World War II’s boy soldiers stood grinning. Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm vets looked out among the crowd searching for their loved ones. A veteran from Afghanistan leaned over the baby carriage to peer into the face of his daughter, and planted a kiss on his widow’s cheek. A mother who’d been killed in action by a roadside bomb in Iraq watched her sons play. I saw her mouth, “Damn, they’ve grown.”
I went to the World War II vet. A look of awe was on his face. Kneeling beside his wheelchair I whispered, “You see them too, don’t you?”
The old man nodded.
“Who are they?”
He found his voice, and a smile grew as he recognized each of them. First, the World War II soldiers, “They were the ones I joined up with – Rob, Will, Sonny, Joe and Ed. We grew up together – in this town and then in war,” he whispered. “I knew the Great War sergeant Riley Neilson. He taught me how to ride a bike. The Civil War Confederate general George Thompson and his Union general brother William Thompson, used to sit in front of the general store in town. They gave me my first job – polishing the leather supplies, later I took over the general store as a clerk. The Korean War officer Jim Darwin was a linebacker on the local football team and could have gone on to state levels. He chose the military instead… and went missing. My son went to school with Tom Budwer, the Vietnam vet. Mike Richards, the Desert Storm veteran was a troublemaker, until I caught him stealing and straightened him out. The mother of the two boys, Sara MacConny-Young, was the homecoming queen – she had a crush on my grandson, but married someone she was in combat with. The Revolutionary War commander, Thomas Burton founded this town. The young man with the baby girl, Ryan Lotts, I taught him how to play baseball.”
There were tears in the World War II veteran’s eyes. He swallowed as he met the eyes of his buddies. “I’m the only one who came back.”
The four members of his unit knelt beside him, recognizing the missing member, despite the age difference. They embraced the man as tears fell on both sides of eternity.
A speaker took the podium, but said nothing important to the deceased. I watched the veterans move among the living, pointing out relatives and marveling at the dwindling crowd. Babies and small children seemed to sense their presence.
The local pastor took to the podium and offered a prayer. In the respectful silence, the ghost soldiers took a formation away from the living, tears in their eyes, wondering if they could return. The World War II veterans stood for a moment longer – boys, with their hands on the shoulders of their friend – the one who had not yet joined them.
Then, moving through the crowd came Saint Michael – patron saint of soldiers. Those in formation saluted him, while the young veterans at the side of their buddy waited. Hesitantly they parted for their commander, nervously glancing at the wheelchair bound veteran and then back to the angel.
Saint Michael knelt, so he could be eye-to-eye with the World War II veteran. There was a pleading in the man’s eyes, as he looked at his friends. Saint Michael studied the dwindling crowd.
The pastor concluded with a hearty, “Amen.”
Saint Michael grabbed the veteran’s hand and pulled him forward. His buddies rushed to his side, helping him up. He took a hobbling step and then all changed. The men were a unit again. Young strong and cheering for they had beaten the enemy.
The veteran was immediately embraced into the fold of others who had come and served before him. Gripping of hands, shouting of jokes, hugging around shoulders and back-slapping laughter followed.
Saint Michael cleared his throat.
They all turned as a children’s church choir lifted their voices in song. Strains of the national anthem echoed through the valley. The ghost unit saluted, as a tiny girl finished off the highest notes, the American flag waving in the breeze.
I blinked the tears from my eyes, and searched the graveyard. Its true what the old poem says, “Old soldiers just fade away.” I could see them and then like smoke, they were gone. They had vanished into the fading sunset.
Saint Michael turned to look at me. “Now is not your time.”
A week later, deployed on foreign soil, the sounds of gunfire echoed as a helicopter lifted from the ground. A sudden harsh beeping brought me back, screaming. A medevac nurse yelled, “We’ve got him! Got him back!” She tucked the blanket around my chin and amid the fog of pain, I heard her order to another officer for medical supplies. Then she turned back to me, “You’re going to live. It’ll be a long road back – but you’ll live.”
“My unit?” I managed to choke out.
She looked broken for a moment. “There were no survivors, except you.”
I fell back against the stretcher, and suddenly realized: I’d be the old man.
If you know someone who this story would benefit, share.
The short story collection Goldlust – which contains this excerpt can be found here. https://www.amazon.com/A.-R.-Mitchell/e/B01ID1ND1U/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
The photograph is one I took last year in East Prospect, a small town south of York, Pennsylvania. They have a Memorial Day event at their local cemetery which is the inspiration for Ghost Unit.