We have all heard and probably said, “Happy Memorial Day!” But should we be saying “Happy” Memorial Day? Is it really a “happy” day? Last night, I was told to have a “wonderful and happy holiday.”
I have rough days where this really bothers me. When I grit my teeth and want to scream. But most of the time, when someone says, “Happy Memorial Day” to me, I smile even though my heart my breaking. 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, without thinking about what Memorial Day truly means.
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.
I am the proud Gold Star Mother of Sgt Derek McConnell. A Gold Star Mother is defined as a mother of a son or daughter who died in active duty to the United States military.
My children are Gold Star Siblings. My sister and brother-in-law are a Gold Star Aunt and Uncle. My nephews are Gold Star Cousins. My father is a Gold Star Grandfather.
That means that this weekend, while so many are headed down the shore, planning barbecues, or enjoying a three day weekend, we are missing someone very important to us.
That means that we know first hand the real cost of war. Not in dollars and cents, but in tears and heartbreak.
That means that we will never again hear Derek’s infectious laugh or bust our sides laughing at his obnoxious and inappropriate antics.
That means that we still have a hole in our hearts and in our families.
That means that we might cry when we think of him, but that is okay.
That means that at times our emotions are raw.
That means that we truly loved and lost a part of ourselves.
That means that the little boy’s hand I held, boo boos I kissed, and nightmares I chased away will never grow old, have children, or live the life he dreamed,
That means that we have learned that we are stronger than we ever thought. We’ve lived through tragedy and heartbreak so that the American way of life can live on.
That means that when someone wishes me a Happy Memorial Day, I choke back the tears as I think about the true meaning of this day.
Since WWII, my family has lost four brave men while in military service to this country. 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 also perished on a tanker in the South Pacific. My paternal grandmother lost her brother, John Keane, in 1945 in Germany. All three of those men were from New Jersey, with one, John Keane, having emigrated here from Scotland when he was a child and became a US citizen.
Only seven 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 10thMountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York where Derek exemplified the 10thMountain’s Motto: “Climb to Glory”.
On July 23, 2011, Derek was injured 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.
He kept his sense of humor through it all and made all of us laugh. When I told him he was a hot mess, his response to me was, “Well, Mom, at least I’m hot.” His sense of humor is something none of us will 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, 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 Sheppard with an angel’s name, Gabriel. My sister and brother-in-law, Yvette and Brian Maglio, renovated their home 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. We are but one Gold Star Family honoring and remembering our military heroes on this Memorial Day.
Please bear with me while I tell you about a few more of those brave men from New Jersey, many of whom are buried only stones away from my son at Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington.
Lt. Dennis W. Zilinski, age 23 from Howell, and SSgt. Edward Karolasz, age 25, from Kearny, were killed near Baiji, north of Baghdad by a roadside bomb on November 19, 2005. “Dennis stood behind the nation’s mission 100%, ready to serve and protect the freedoms so many citizens cherish,” his parents, Marion and Dennis said.
On June 5, 2004, we lost two members of the Army National Guard out of Morristown when their vehicle hit an IED in Baghdad. Spc. Ryan Doltz, 25, from Mine Hill and Army Sgt. Humberto F. Timoteo, of Newark, 25. Two other members of the same unit, Sgt. Frank Carvill, 51, of Carlstadt, and Spc. Christopher Duffy, 26, of Brick, were killed days earlier in an ambush.
Army Staff Sgt. Timothy R. McGill, 30, of Ramsey, N.J., was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, Middletown, R.I. and died Sept. 21, 2013
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.
I want everyone to have fun this weekend. Have a BBQ. Go down the shore. Go for a swim. But please also pause to remember WHY we have this three day weekend. WHY we enjoy the freedoms we have. WHY when the National Anthem plays or the flag flies high, we should stand at attention. Why when taps plays, a Gold Star family silently cries.
I challenge every person here to share the true meaning of Memorial Day with five people. Tell the story of ONE person who gave all. I told you about several here today. Choose one of them, or find someone new. Just please talk about at least one member of our military who gave all so that we may be free.
You are never truly gone until no one remembers you. Talk about those we lost. Share their stories. Keep their sacrifice and memories alive.
In closing, Memorial Day is about so much more than BBQs, 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.