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Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
June 2017

“Happy” Memorial Day? Not for those left behind

Abigstock-Memorials-in-Cemetery-with-Ame-20185238sk any random resident or young person what Memorial Day is all about, and the response will likely be “barbecue and beer!” or “no school!” or “great shopping at the mall!” We stroll around on a day off from work, relaxing, having fun, exchanging the occasional “Happy Memorial Day” greeting with friends and strangers alike.

For people like Miami Shores native and Army veteran Michael Shepherd, the very notion that Memorial Day greetings would be prefaced with the adjective “happy” shows a disconnect between the military world he revers and the broader civilian society most of us occupy.

For Shepherd, Memorial Day is not so much a celebration as a solemn remembrance of military personnel who died in the line of duty.

Too often and for too many of us, Memorial Day is conflated with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is distinct; it’s a remembrance of the fallen. Our contemporary focus is on the 6900 fatalities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which the United States has waged over the past 15 years. For the family and friends of those 6900 individuals, it’s a day of loss and sorrow.

I met Shepherd in 2016, when he spoke at the Village’s annual Memorial Day ceremony at Memorial Park. That was his fourth Memorial Day address over the years at the park, and the audience was roundly impressed with this earnest, articulate young man, still in this 20s, who understands Memorial Day in its very essence.

Shepherd, a Bronze Star recipient from a 2013 tour in Afghanistan, shared the story of Jordan Morris, a West Point friend who had served as a kind of mentor to him, and who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2011. Shepherd honors him with a memorial bracelet.

I was so impressed with Shepherd’s presentation that I reached out to him via a Facebook search, and discovered that he’s now enrolled in UF Law School. Shepherd immediately conveys a sense of intense, almost fiery, patriotism, idealism backed by a thorough understanding of American history.

Profoundly affected in middle school by 9/11, Shepherd, who describes himself as a middling athlete and student at the time, was fueled with a calling to military service that led him to West Point and eventually to combat duty in Afghanistan. A soldier scholar, he came to the attention of Village elders, particularly manager Tom Benton, and has served since 2011 as a keynote for Village Memorial Day ceremonies.

Reading his previous speeches, I see that a common theme emerges to personalize the loss commemorated on Memorial Day. Below the surface, Shepherd bemoans society’s broader unawareness of, and indifference to, the meaning of Memorial Day. In his 2011 speech, he told the story of another West Point graduate, 1st Lt. Daren Hidalgo, who died in Afghanistan -- and how the media reveled in news coverage that revolved around Charlie Sheen’s latest antics but had nothing to say on Hidalgo’s death.

“Our military fights so that our country can be free,” he said, “even if that means that a great number of American people do not reflect on what Memorial Day means.”

I think he lets us off the hook a bit too easily. We Americans generally revere the military, but we’re largely disengaged and disconnected from it. For a country that’s been at war for the past 15 years, precious few of us have shouldered any burden or sacrifice. We barely pause.

A puny 0.4 percent of 1 percent of the general public serves on active duty (and an approximated 15 percent of that 0.4 percent are on active duty in combat zones. James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic in 2015: “Many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military.”

Consider that at the end of the Second World War, 70 percent of all able-bodied men from 18 to 38 had served. Not even Elvis and Joe DiMaggio were exempt.

“America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war,” wrote Fallows, “and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts.”

At El Portal’s Armed Forces Day 5K, I spoke with Army Col. Noel Pace, the husband of El Portal Mayor Claudia Cubillos; and with Miami Lakes Councilman Tim Daubert, who served in the Marine Corps.

Daubert and Pace echoed the sentiment that the military-civilian gulf is stark. Both voiced support for mandatory national service as a way to mold a sense of national identity and broaden the ideal of collective citizenship. Military service is “the best social program the government has ever created” says Pace.

My own thoughts this past Memorial Day drifted to my father, Frank Ise, and to Army Spec. Spencer C. Duncan, both from Kansas City, Missouri. Duncan died when his Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in 2011. Along with 30 other U.S. servicemen, he was killed on a day that constituted the largest single-day loss of the Afghan war. The Duncan family started the “Spencer C. Duncan ‘Make It Count’ Project” to help veterans and veterans’ organizations, centered on an annual 5K fundraiser.

My father, an Army physician, performed the initial physical on Duncan a few years before his death. Vigorous even at 76, Dad ran in Duncan’s first commemorative 5K. Approaching the finish line, he collapsed (as a result of an undiagnosed heart condition), struck his head on the pavement, and was taken unconscious to the hospital.

Alas, dear old Dad never regained consciousness and passed on to the Great Beyond two days later. While sad, there’s a certain satisfaction that he was active to the end, serving the greater cause of honoring a fallen soldier to whom he felt a personal connection. We should all be so lucky to depart this world in such a manner.

It’s worthy for all of us to pause and give some thought to those who sacrifice for the greater good. Just visit the southern side of Memorial Park and observe the “Roll of Honor” monument, which holds the names of hundreds of Miami Shores-area residents from the Second World War. Each name is a story in and of itself.

It’s fitting to conclude with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which may have served as the genesis for Memorial Day. “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” he wrote. And more: “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

 

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