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What we remember on Memorial Day

In addition to fallen soldiers, the holiday is a day to remember all loved ones who are no longer with us. Five writers share their memories of fathers, husbands, friends and fellow soldiers.

May 30, 2010

Decoration Day, the predecessor of Memorial Day, was established in the years after the Civil War to honor Union soldiers who died in combat. Since then, the holiday has become a time to commemorate all those who died in military service to the country. It is also, more broadly, a day to remember all loved ones who are no longer with us. Here are some remembrances in honor of the holiday.

The soldier left behind
David Bloom

I first met Cheyenne Willey at the U.S. Army's Civil Affairs Requalification Course at Ft. Dix, N.J., in early 2005. We were both 35, a little over the hill for warriors. We had both served in the military -- I in the Marines, he in the Army -- and had both felt called to reenlist after 9/11 to help with the effort in the Middle East. At Ft. Dix, we were trained to work on projects aimed at rebuilding Iraq and winning hearts and minds.

One month after school ended, Willey and I found our names on the same roster of soldiers headed for Iraq to help rebuild schools, repair the power grid and pass out Beanie Babies. We trained together every weekday at Camp Roberts and Ft. Hunter Liggett in California, and then at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, and we often saw each other in town on the weekends in the three months before our deployment. He had grown up in rural Illinois and was an easygoing sort: He liked everyone, and everyone liked him.

On the night before we deployed, I ran into Willey at the Applebee's in Fayetteville, N.C. He invited me to join him and his friends. We all knew we were heading to a violent place, and we were nervous. We knew we would see battle, and we were unsure who would win.

Our civil affairs contingency arrived in Baghdad in June 2005 to find a country in shambles. The electrical grid worked in most neighborhoods for a total of six hours a day at best, and local opinion of the U.S. was dropping daily. Our patrols often seemed designed mainly to draw fire and thereby locate the enemy. Each roadside garbage bag we passed sent a chill through our spines.

Two days before Christmas, Willey and Sgt. Regina Reali were sent to pick up hot chow for their fellow soldiers. They didn't make it back. The armored Humvee they drove was hit by an explosively formed projectile, which penetrated the vehicle and killed them. I later heard that Willey's last words were to tell the medics to stop attending to him and work on the driver. That's the kind of guy he was.

I was told that my father's biological father died on a World War II battlefield. My uncle died in Vietnam. As a child, on Memorial Day, I always thought about them and wondered about the circumstances of their deaths. I still think about them when the holiday rolls around. But since my safe return in 2006, Memorial Day has not passed without my also taking time to honor the friend I left behind.

David Bloom is a public information assistant in local government, a civil affairs sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve and commander of American Legion Post 206 in Highland Park.

A farmer's life
David Mas Masumoto

Dad was a farmer. We grew savory peaches and sweet raisins on a simple and small 80-acre organic family farm. I don't recall him ever saying he loved us; he was a stoic farmer who spoke through his actions.

Emotions were implied and unspoken, and clear in my memories. I remember him picking me up and carrying me when I was a child after I tripped on a vineyard wagon tongue and split my lip and broke a tooth. Or when I was a teenager, how he quietly rescued me without getting angry when my tractor got stuck in mud. During his final years, he wore the public stolid face of an old dying farmer. We all knew he still cared about life. He spent hours looking out the window at his farm. A family farm.

As he gradually declined and could not work in the fields, Mom gave me a stack of his work clothes. The first time I wore them, I could still smell a hint of his sweat -- a gentle yet sweet aroma, a working-class scent. Work was his life, and in the end, as I walked our fields, I realized his spirit was now part of the farm.

The final years were a challenge for all. Death would probably be easy; dying was the hard part. Dad knew he had become a burden. He struggled with his own sense of worth. Part of his dignity was lost, although we sometimes found meaning in the little things that had become the hardest to endure. Dad loved getting a bath. He looked like a kid, scrubbing himself with his good left hand, smiling as a stream of warm water danced off his head.

This spring, I stayed up with my father the last night of his life. Some claim that at the very end of life, there's a burst of energy. That night, Dad sat up and wanted to stand.

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