Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day, 2014

This is the text of the speech I gave (or at least intended to give!  I didn't deviate too much) this morning to the Memorial Day Ceremony hosted by American Legion Post 11 in Frederick, Maryland. 
Good morning:  Thank you American Legion Post 11 for inviting me, a Gold Star Mother, to tell my story on this Memorial Day.  I want us to remember that this holiday was started to honor the fallen soldiers of both sides of a bloody and terrible war, the Civil War, and it continues to this day to honor soldiers who have fallen while serving their country.  A few days ago, I was having a conversation that was already awkward with a contractor who had said some work on our house would take four days and so far has taken two months and she closed by saying, “well Happy Memorial Day.”  My patience was at an end and I snapped “I’m the mother of a fallen soldier and I am not going to have a happy Memorial Day.”  She replied that Memorial Day is for remembering all of our dead and that she had lost her mother three years ago so she knew just what I meant. I’m sorry, she had no idea of what I meant and I am afraid that many more of our countrymen may not know either.  As the time lengthens since the end of the Korean conflict and World War II, and even Viet Nam, people forget how terrible war is.  Most people do not know anyone who has lost a loved one at war, and maybe my point of view has been skewed by knowing so many, but to me it is just as important as  ever that we remember those who have died defending our freedom and our safety.
A peculiar blessing of the 21st century is the connectedness encouraged by the internet.  My Facebook newsfeed is full of stories from the parents and spouses and friends of soldiers and marines and sailors and airmen.  Many have posted pithy reminders that Memorial Day is not all about going to the beach or having a picnic.  Many more simply post pictures of their loved ones, and sometimes pictures of their loved ones’ grave.  I do this myself, very regularly, because I do not want anyone to forget that our freedom comes with a price.   Sometimes I post pictures of particular headstones at Arlington so the families of those service members will know someone has visited. 
My son, Army Specialist Thomas Doerflinger, enlisted in the Army in his high school cafeteria in April of 2002.  That October, he left for Ft. Benning and Basic Training as an infantryman, and was then assigned to Fort Lewis in Washington state.  There he trained as a driver of Stryker vehicles, a wheeled personnel carrier,  finished the first level of EMT training, took a rapid Arabic course and learned how to take out tanks—all interesting skills if not useful in everyday life—while his unit prepared for deployment to Iraq.  In early October of 2004, I said good-bye to Thomas, standing in the parking lot of the Taco Bell right outside the gates of Ft. Lewis.  As always, he did not want us to go on post—too much paperwork he said--so he called a cab to take him back to barracks.  The last time I saw him, he was facing forward, heading back to the mission he had chosen.  Less than two weeks later, his Stryker Brigade Combat Team deployed.  Not quite four weeks after that, on November 11, 2004, he was killed in action in Mosul Iraq.  Thomas had volunteered for that last mission because the vehicle he was supposed to be driving was in for repairs after being damaged during combat.  He served that day as rear air guard, protecting his friends while they secured a local police station from insurgents until he was hit by sniper fire.  He was the only casualty that day and I suspect he would think that, having kept the others safe, he had a successful day.  His body arrived in Dover three days later:  it was the week of the Fallujah offensive and many other families of soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen were also grieving.  On Thomas’s instructions, he is buried in the Catholic cemetery near our home in Montgomery County.  He had told us that the Army had him for five years or until something happened to him but eternity belonged to him.
In the years since, our family has been all too aware that we are not alone in our grief.  We have made friends with the families of other fallen servicemembers, we have been given the opportunity to speak publicly, we have campaigned to change the name of a library in Rockville to honor the memory of our loved ones.  My personal decision to be of service led me, in 2007, to join the newly re-formed Maryland Chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers.
Every family that has lost a member in service to our country is a Gold Star Family.  During the First World War, the practice of hanging a service banner in the home ofanyone serving in the military was instituted:  for every family member serving, a blue star was placed on the banner.   If a family member died, the blue star was covered by a gold star.  As time went on, the Gold Star Pin was created by the Department of Defense, and now family members are given a lapel pin with that star to signify their loss.  I confess that I have lost three of these gold star pins so far so I now wear a pin in the shape of the service banner—parents often wear the service banner pin with a blue star for their children on active duty, but my pin has a gold star in the center.  I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to explain it but then I’m not sure that everyone understands its significance. 
World War I and its aftermath changed other ways we memorialize our fallen.   Following the American Civil War, as early as 1866, many towns and villages in the United States had started decorating the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers with flowers and picnicking in cemeteries in the spring.  Eventually May 30th was chosen as the official date of Decoration Day, simply because it was NOT the date of any significant battle: there were no winners or losers that day.  Decoration Day honored Civil War soldiers exclusively until the end of the First World War, when the custom changed to include the fallen of all American conflicts. 
World War I ended on November 11, 1918. In the year following, most of the English speaking world began observing November 11th as Armistice Day and then as a Day of Remembrance.  Here in the United States of course we already had the long-standing tradition memorializing our fallen on May 30th, which we kept.  But we recognized the importance of November 11th, the last day of a war that had very high casualties, and for many years we observed November 11th as Armistice Day.  The history of November 11th is complicated but following World War II and the Korean conflict, the name was officially changed to Veterans Day and, with a brief pause in the early 70s, November 11th has been a day to honor our living veterans ever since.
Now, my son was killed in action on November 11th, 2004.  Frankly, I think he might very well have chosen this date if he’d been given a choice in the matter.  But it does make Veterans Day a little bit awkward for us, his surviving family.  Though we honor Thomas primarily on that day, we are well aware that Veterans Day is a day to thank our veterans who returned home to us for their service.    As recent events have shown however, we need to be aware of our veterans and their needs every day of the year, and this is in fact one of the purposes of the American Gold Star Mothers as our history shows.
The Gold Star Mothers organization is a legacy of World War I.  George Siebold, an American aviator, flew under British command during that war.  He went missing and eventually was presumed dead, though the circumstances of his death were never clear and his body was never identified.  Nonetheless, by December of 1918, his obituary was published and his widow was given his effects.  His mother, Grace Darling Siebold, had maintained hope for months, visiting the wounded in hospitals hoping to find her son among them, but even when he was declared dead she continued those visits to the wounded and began to extend “the hand of friendship to other mothers whose sons had lost their lives in military service.”  She organized those mothers into a group with the purpose of comforting each other and continuing to care for hospitalized veterans in government hospitals.  The organization was named after the Gold Star on the service banner.  American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. was incorporated in Washington DC in 1928.  To quote the American Gold Star Mothers’ website, “We stand tall and proud by honoring our children, assisting our veterans, supporting our nation, and healing with each other.”
The current Maryland chapter of American Gold Star Mothers was reorganized in 2007 by Carol Roddy whose son David, a sailor, was killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006.  Carol knew  there had been such a thing as the Gold Star Mothers and began looking for a chapter to join, only to be told by the national organization that currently there was no active group in Maryland even though a chapter had existed after the Viet Nam conflict.  National apparently suggested that Carol might reorganize the chapter.  So she set to work, locating the other mothers with the help of Senator Mikulski’s office  (We actually have a hard time finding each other as our privacy is protected.)  Perhaps 15 of us came to that first meeting but we have, sadly, acquired many members since then.  Over the last seven years we have sent packages to service members overseas and brought personal care items to veterans living in shelters.  We’ve made fleece blankets for wounded warriors and collected kitchen items for families living in Building 62 at Walter Reed.   We’ve greeted Honor Flights of World War II veterans and we’ve filled in the gap when a Wounded Warrior needed a ride to Arlington Cemetery to participate in Wreaths Across America.  Several of our members volunteer for the Red Cross and as individuals we give many, many hours to our communities and to veterans.  We support one another in our grief and we celebrate the lives of our sons and daughters.  We are as diverse a group of women as you could ever hope to find, but we are friends, united in our grief, but also determined to make the most of the time and energy we’ve been given to do some good in our world.  Many of us have spoken at public events like this one, and on other occasions we are simply honored guests.  Sadly, our founding president, Carol Roddy, passed away last year.  We are carrying on in her memory as well as the memory of our children.
In all of this of course we do not lose sight of what brought us here.  Our sons and daughters have died in the service of their country.  We want them to be remembered and honored.  Unfortunately, a great many of our fellow citizens do not know the history of the Gold Star or understand the significance of a Gold Star banner hanging on the window or door of a house.  So a large part of our task is simply the same as the goal of Memorial Day:  Remember them.  Thank you.

Labels: ,