Memorial Day Means Something

By Jim Morando

Some think Memorial Day is just a day off work during a great time of year for a barbeque. While both may be true, Memorial Day is meant to honor military personnel who died while serving in the US Armed Forces. Since 1970, this national holiday has been observed on the last Monday in May. Say “Happy Memorial Day,” to someone who lost a son, daughter, spouse, sibling, or friend, and silence is probably the best response you can expect. 

The political polarization in this country overshadows another growing divide—the one between the civilian and military populations. During WWII, about 12 percent of the population served, and most civilians were actively engaged in the war effort in some way: collecting scrap metal, tending a small victory garden, or popping rivets into tanks. Today, the percentage of the population who’ve served has shrunk to only .5 percent, and there is far less civilian engagement. These two factors make understanding all things military, including the significance of Memorial Day, a bit of a mystery to most of the population. Over one million Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. My mom’s brother, George, was one of them. This story is about him and the struggles of those he left behind.

His life started out hard and did not get easier. His parents put my mom and George into foster care when they were just out of diapers and continued living in the same town, which to me just seems cruel. This was the mid-1930s, just after the Great Depression, and folks were still struggling. Unfortunately, some families took in kids for less than altruistic reasons. The nicer foster families let them eat meals with them, and the not so nice ones gave them whatever was left after everyone else was done. 

The siblings spent their formative years living under separate roofs but never more than a few miles apart. George became an accomplished escape artist who was very protective of his younger sister and would frequently run away to see her. By all accounts, he was a tough, strong-willed kid who accepted that his lifelong friend, corporal punishment, would be patiently waiting for his return after each unauthorized visit. Just before George turned 18, he went to a new home. As was his custom, he ran away before he even unpacked to see his sister, ensuring she knew his new address. His new parents beat him severely for this transgression; shortly thereafter, he left Long Island on a bus for the Adirondacks to enlist in the Army. 

Two years later, when he was just 20 years old, George, or “Steely” as his Army buddies called him, was classified as MIA in Korea. No other details were provided. The question of what happened to him remained unanswered for almost 60 years until one of my brothers’ co-workers told him to ask about George on a Korean War blog. A week later, my brother got a lead and unknowingly dialed George’s old battle buddy who promptly hung up on him as he thought the information shared was some kind of cruel joke.

I have heard that those who go off to war and had friends that did not come back often ask, “Why did I make it back but they didn’t?” For George’s battle buddy, the answer was simple; his truck did not start that morning, so George drove up to the Chosin Reservoir in his place just before 120,000 Chinese troops encircled and attacked 30,000 UN soldiers. His guilt became even worse when he found out that after all this time, George’s family still did not know what happened to him. He could not bring himself to speak to my brother again. All subsequent communications took place with his daughter, who called my brother later that day to find out what he said to make her father so upset. After understanding the issue, she agreed to talk to her dad.

A few days later my brother received a detailed email from her about the circumstances surrounding George’s death. After learning about the old and new guilt her father had accumulated, my brother, who also served in the Army, called to tell her we did not blame her father in any way for George’s death and expressed how grateful we were to finally know how he had been killed. A year later, his daughter called a final time to let my brother know her father had passed but that during the final year of his life, he was happier than she ever remembered. While it is important to mourn the dead, it is equally important to take care of the living. We wish we could have given her father peace sooner.

Another decade passed before a much more detailed official Army report corroborated his battle buddy’s account. Why had it taken so long? The unit he was assigned to and the unit he was with during the attack both assumed the other would document his death. It appears that neither did.

My mom never recovered from losing George. That meant we never watched war movies when she was out of bed. It also meant we got to see her slip into a deep, dark depression whenever a reporter on the radio or TV would talk about the North Koreans or Chinese torturing US servicemen rumored to still be held in POW camps. George’s original Army classification was MIA and not KIA, so she believed he was imprisoned. Imagining what he was going through understandably tormented her soul.

Almost 70 years after hostilities on the Korean peninsula ended, President Trump convinced Kim Jung Un to release the remains of 55 US servicemen. I was asked to submit a DNA sample to see if George was one of them. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for George to come home, so he can receive a proper burial.

My mom, now 91, has no short-term memory but still asks about her brother. When we spoke to the neurologist about how to respond to her condition, he said we could ruin her life in five-minute increments or try to keep her happy. Given the two choices, it is an easy decision, but every time I walk into her nursing home, I pray she does not ask about George. When she does, I give her my best white lie smile and tell her he stopped in a day ago or came by while she was napping. For her at least, in those fleeting moments, George is finally home and that is enough for now.

George’s story is literally one in more than a million. This Memorial Day, take a few minutes to say a brief prayer for all your fellow Americans who sacrificed their lives in service. Please raise a toast to those who never made it back and share the significance of the holiday. I think George, his fellow patriots, and their families and friends would appreciate that very much. 

Editor’s Note: Jim Morando is the owner of African Sporting Creations. Between now and the end of Memorial Day, he would like to raise $20,000 ($1,000 for each year of George’s life) to fund a service dog for a combat veteran through Rescue 22, a non-profit that trains and provides service dogs to veterans in need. Jim will match the first $10,000 of donations. The $20,000 he hopes to raise will cover the costs incurred during the specialized training the dog receives, which typically lasts more than a year. While he does not know the breed of the dog, a name has already been chosen: Steely. Please click here to donate. 

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