Joe DeCree and I are talking about Memorial Day — how he handles it and insight on how to move through this sacred time.
Joe: Memorial Day: Is there a worse day on the calendar? Gosh, I feel like I want to go to bed all day and hide. Unfortunately, it is inevitable. It comes every year. Every year there is the parade of faces and names. In my case it has been long enough that I don’t remember all the faces anymore. The internet is a nice invention that way. I can always look them up and see them again. One of the more interesting things is that the Memorial Day slump can hit any time within a five or six day period for me. It might hit me earlier or later than the actual holiday. My age is a problem, too. When I was a kid, Memorial Day was always May 30th. Now it is the last Monday in May. The result? Sometimes that wall of grief falls on me twice.
Britta: I think what the public often forgets is that combat vets are grieving year-round. Memorial Day is the “official” day when it’s okay to grieve and be sad. The public puts grief in the box of this day and that’s good and bad news for veterans. The good news is that other people DO acknowledge the losses; the bad news is that the day after and it’s back to life-as-usual and veterans are left to continue grieving alone. Joe is right – the wall of grief is going to hit you no matter what, so it’s a question of how do you handle that? How open do you be with others? What do you allow yourself during that time? Joe, how do you handle it?
Joe: Well, everybody’s a little different, but here is my technique. When I first realize that Memorial Day is imminent, I take action. By imminent I mean I can tell the wave is coming. It might be May 25 or May 31. However, I take control of the wave and just ride it. Yep, I know this is counter-intuitive and your counselor or psychiatrist is trying to help you cope through it. I choose the opposite. Now, you have to be ready for this — it is actually an advanced trauma recovery technique that involves taking control of your trauma and inducing it so that you can later learn to quell it. Do not do it the first time on your own, please.
Britta: I agree – do NOT do this for the first time alone, especially if you spiral into a darkness that you know you have trouble getting out of on your own. You want your counselor to walk you into and out of this process. What you can do though, is acknowledge that grief is going to hit you hard and give yourself some space for that. What so often happens is that vets try their best to hide their pain and sadness, and keep up the appearance that things are all happy-BBQs-and-picnics…most of the country takes a moment to honor the dead and then more or less parties as the first “official” weekend of summer. As a warrior, you embody what Memorial Day deeply means — this is a sacred time for you and you need to take the stand with family and friends that this is what it means to you. Joe, what does “taking control of your trauma” look like for you?
Joe: This is how it breaks down. I check out the old obituary notices or medal citations for my departed buddies. I force myself to look back. I look back on some battles like Mogadishu, Gettysburg (the battle that started Memorial Day), or Fallujah. I text or talk to buds who are still breathing with me about our brothers and sisters who are gone. I force the wave of grief into the tsunami. No sense waiting on it then it’ll just wreck two or three days. I take control of it to the extent I can, knowing that it is coming anyway.
The sooner it hits the sooner it passes. I might go upstairs and bawl my eyes out. I might go walk in the woods. I probably will hunker down with the cats, they always seem to understand. My wife is cool. She knows it is coming and I just tell her it’s here. Sometimes she sits with me and sometimes I just tell her she can go about her list of things. We have been married 25 years. She just kind of knows how to do this now.
On Memorial Day – the federal holiday – I will go to the local cemetery and try to visit each and every flag. I try to have a short conversation with the guy or lady interned there. I live in a small town and I can usually get to all of them. There have been years where I could not bring myself to do that. My buddy, neighbor, hunting partner, and mentor John is a Viet Nam vet and a grunt, so we understand each other. So I go over there and we toss one back for the soldiers, marines, airmen, sailors, and coasties who did not come home. I am like a lot of you, I have trouble with war movies most days, but on Memorial Day I might watch one as long as I am able to. I don’t try to be social if I am not up to it. I may or may not take up an offer to go to someone’s house and catch a ball game. I usually brief them in advance and tell them that I might have to just leave with no notice or if they can’t find me not to worry.
Britta: Right, which I think is crucial. You have the right to say no to those family get-togethers and be in retreat if you need space — and you have the right to let the presence of others comfort you, if that comforts you. Ultimately, you’re going to deal with some deep feelings of aloneness, survivor guilt, and really missing those you’ve lost. It’s important to realize that no matter how misunderstood you feel or how “left behind” you feel, or how much you think it should have been you that died instead, you are not alone. The Divine is with you — and can be the one Being that truly does understand you, and stays with you every moment of this time.
Joe: I pray a lot on Memorial Day. I ask God why He did not let me back into the fight. I always feel like I was a good enough warrior and leader that I could have pulled a few more through. I have no idea if that is true or not. I always recall John 15:13 “greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” I do thank God for the men and women I served with and the sacrifices they and their families made.
All of what I’ve described may only take a couple of hours. It might take most of the day. I usually end up in bed early, but at the end of the day I tell myself I did the best I knew how; that their loss made us better off; and that I was honored to have known them.
Britta: It really all does come back down to Love. It’s love that sustains us and love that holds us. I equate the Divine with Love…and if it was not love that held you together, love that forms the bonds with the fallen, you would not grieve. Love isn’t only a soft, fluffy emotion — it’s the toughest connective fiber we have between souls. This fact may or may not comfort you while you’re deep in sadness — but Love holds you the entire time you’re crying, raging, or sitting stone-faced staring off into space. I also believe the spirits of those you’ve lost are with you and wish to comfort you — if you lean into sensing it, you’ll sense they’re there. Their love for you remains.
I think it’s important for you to give yourself permission to feel what you feel. Emotions will move through you and pass. Memorial Day will complete itself for another year — and the sharp focus on the dead will ease. You will get through this. If you’re feeling suicidal — reach out — don’t do it. It doesn’t mean your grief goes away, but it does mean that you get to decide how you’re going to make your grief and the memory of their lives matter in real, concrete ways. You do this by being kindness in this world. By making a difference in their names, in your name. By celebrating their lives.
It’s going to be tempting to numb out and drink and just try to skip life until June 1. Remember, what you keep inside of you only grows stronger — when you express it — by talking with someone, praying, writing, through creative arts, crying — it loses power over you and you can start to create new ways of making meaning from it all. There is incredible healing power in just having someone who truly loves you witness your story and join in honoring the ones you lost. If you have a loving spouse or lover — by all means, let them be a healing presence for you. They are strong enough to carry the weight of you when you’re feeling weak. Don’t assume they don’t care if you don’t give them the chance to hear what you’ve experienced.
Joe: Yeah, I do not get drunk that day. Alcohol or drugs and grief are poor bedfellows. If I am having a rougher time than I expect, I let my wife know. Be with your brothers and sisters that day. Be with God and know that the ones we lost are, too. Be with them physically if they are alive and you are able; but if not, be with them in spirit. Do not be alone too much that day and remember the living need you more than the dead.
Britta: Yes, the living need you more than the dead. The dead forgive you. The dead want you to live — really live — to honor Life. If they could talk to you, they would even go so far as to want you to give yourself permission to be happy, to enjoy the life you still have. You are not betraying them and you are not making their deaths matter less by choosing to mourn them, love them forever in your heart, and live a meaningful life that brings goodness and joy to the living.
Download: Combat Veterans Guidebook 3_What to do about grief
2 thoughts on “Combat Vets: On Grief and Getting Through Memorial Day”
Thank you for sharing this, Tony. Blessings to you!
I go to the local National Cemetery early in the morning (before the news media and politicians show up) and walk the line, reading each stone. Once I have finished this, I spend some time remembering and praying (usually until the thundering herd begins to show up).