We have all heard and probably said, “Happy Memorial Day!” But is that really appropriate? Should we be saying “Happy” Memorial Day? Is it really a “happy” day? Do we go to funerals or memorial services for loved ones and tell people to have a happy day?
It used to bother me. A lot. But it no longer does.
When someone says, “Happy Memorial Day” to me now, I smile. I am thankful to all of those who gave all, who gave their very lives so that the American public can have a “happy” Memorial Day. So that they can go to barbecues, head down the shore, take a road trip, or whatever else makes them happy.
I am thankful that so many Americans do not have to live with the horrors and difficulties that other countries experience. Bombings in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, England, France. Yes, we have our own share of problems, but not like around the world. I am glad that I live in a country protected by these brave souls so that John Q Public can continue to live in ignorance.
Memorial Day has always had special meaning in my household. In 1942, my paternal grandfather lost two of his brothers. Albert Fuller was a Merchant Marine who died on a torpedoed tanker, and Frank Fuller was a Lt. Commander in the US Navy who perished on a tanker in the South Pacific. My paternal grandmother lost her brother, John Keane, in 1945 in Germany.
In addition to several uncles, cousins, and in-laws who served, my great-great-grandfather, Michael Keane, was a prisoner of war in the First World War where he served with the Royal Navy. My father, John Fuller, was in the Army in the early 1960’s. My son, Michael, served four years with the US Navy on the USS Vella Gulf out of Norfolk, Virginia.
While my family’s history led to us having a deeper appreciation for Memorial Day, it wasn’t until 2013 that it really hit home. In 2011, only six short years ago, I “celebrated” Memorial Day with two sons in the Armed Forces. Michael was finishing his tour of duty in Norfolk, Virginia, but Derek had deployed to Afghanistan in March 2011 with the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York where Derek exemplified the 10th Mountain’s Motto: “Climb to Glory”.
On July 23, 2011, I received a phone call from Fort Drum advising me that Derek had been injured while on patrol. While attempting to secure a landing zone for a medevac helicopter for an injured lieutenant, Derek encountered not one, but two IEDs. The first one knocked him down, but he sustained no further injury. When given the opportunity to stand down, he laughed and carried on. Two steps later, he wasn’t so lucky.
Derek suffered amputations to both legs, the left leg from the hip and the right leg high above the knee. He also had a degloving injury to his right arm, leaving the hand not able to function, several fractures, and blast wounds, and he was riddled with infections due to the dirty soil entering his blood stream. We almost lost him several times to sepsis and organ failure. Derek spent 59 days in the ICU and 228 days (seven full months) as an inpatient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He had 45 surgeries and procedures, and he was seen by 34 different medical teams and services. He fought through it all.
Derek fought long and hard to regain his health, strength and stamina, but he never lost his sense of humor. We spent many days sitting in his hospital room, when he was too sick to get out of bed, just laughing at his antics. We were the place nurses and doctors came to hang out and get their daily dose of “Derekisms.”
In high school Derek was the student who showed up to class with a smile and a whole lot of charm. That’s it. No homework. No notebook. Nothing but his winning personality. He charmed his teachers into passing him. He stood up for the little guy. He fought against injustice. He was as fierce in battle as he was gentle in friendship and a great ally. He so loved his family that he had a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on his arm with the names of each of his four siblings. His favorite sayings were “No Luck, Only Sacrifice,” and “Go Big, or Go Home.” He had “No Luck, Only Sacrifice” tattooed on his arm, and many of us have gotten the same tattoo in his honor. He meant that you do not get anywhere in life by relying on luck; you work hard and sacrifice for what is important. That’s who Derek was.
He was also a hot mess. When I told him that, his response to me was, “Well, Mom, at least I’m hot.” His sense of humor is something none of us will quick forget.
Derek fought hard, and never gave up. He learned to walk again on high tech prosthetics, learned to be independent, and proposed to the girl of his dreams, Krystina Dressler, his high school sweetheart. They were to be married in January 2014. Derek aspired to be a writer, and he started his own novel. He was completing the med board process so that he could be medically retired from the Army, and he was looking forward to coming home in the summer of 2013, and to picking up his service dog, a German Shephard with an angel’s name, Gabriel. My sister, Yvette Maglio, renovated her house so that Derek would be able to move home. We were all ready and excited about the future. Derek knew his limitations, but he was ready to meet them head on.
His dreams and goals were not to be realized. On March 18, 2013, almost two years to the date he deployed to Afghanistan, he climbed to eternal glory. Sgt Derek McConnell, 23 years old like so many other Veterans; made the ultimate sacrifice and wrote a blank check payable to The United States of America, for an unknown amount, but “up to, and including, his life…”
But Derek is only one of our brave men and women who answered the call to serve our country. He is but one. I am but one Gold Star Mother honoring and remembering our military heroes on this Memorial Day.
Since the start of the War on Terror, less than 14 years ago, we have lost around 7,000 of our brave, young men and women, and that is not including the 22 each day who lose their battle with PTSD.
Today, we pause to honor all of those lost in military conflict since the start of our great nation, which is more than 1.3 million. Their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their families can never be forgotten.
Memorial Day is about so much more than barbecues, the beach, and a long weekend. Memorial Day is a day of reflection and remembrance. It is a day to remember all of our Fallen Heroes from all of the wars. It is a day to think about the families that will forever grieve for their lost loved one. It is a day to be thankful to those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice. They fought and died to win the freedom and democracy that we Americans cherish so dearly.
All gave some, but some gave all.
Along with my Gold Star Sisters and Brothers, I will bear the burden for everyone in this great Nation to have a “happy” Memorial Day.
So go on and have a happy Memorial Day. Smile when someone says, “Happy Memorial Day.” Then take a few minutes to reflect on all of those who gave all so that you and I could have a Happy Memorial Day.
Pledge to go silent for these brave men and women at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day. Never forget their sacrifice so that you may live free.