I watched the Civil War movie “Shenandoah” the other night. Halfway through, Jimmie Stewart says, with subtlety, “what do you do with dead soldiers?” He was partially concerned with what to do with the remains of the dead Confederate soldiers, but mostly he seems to be expressing uncertainty about what will happen to these soldiers, long after they are buried. How will we remember them? How will we honor them? Well, that’s why we have Memorial Day.
As in the past, our fine men and women in the military are, again, giving their very lives to protect the United States. And almost daily, all across the country you see expressions of appreciation for their sacrifices. In a sense, almost every day is a Memorial Day. If you put a flag out every morning, the experience probably has very special meaning – a Memorial Day, of sorts.
Given the aforementioned, this leaves us with a little extra time this Memorial Day to remember someone in the military family that for decades received little sympathy or even attention – the mothers who’s sons and daughters died in Vietnam. They are mostly gone now, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to say we’re sorry your hearts were broken, and we remember you.
Returning from Vietnam in 1969, the Army for a time put me in charge of 5th Army Casualty Section (midwestern US). I would coordinate sending out the NG or Reserve Officers to notify families. But in weeks following, I took the phone calls from wives, sisters, brothers, fathers – usually wanting details as to how their loved one died. But it was the mothers I remember talking to the most. Usually they had family around them, but their community frequently ignored them, often scorned them and sometimes even harrassed them at a funeral or memorial service. For more than 20 years after their loss, while Vietnam Veterans were still unwelcome by the local VFW and American Legion, these mothers mostly endured their heartache alone, in their own private way.
After Desert Storm, the country began to express gratitude to the Vietnam Veterans and particulary show respect to those who lost their lives in Vietnam. But for many of these still grieving mothers, it was too little, too late. Although not true in every case, I believe most of these women were never allowed to feel the respect, honor, and appreciation they deserved for the extreme sacrifice they made for an ungrateful nation.
Lillian May, of White Deer, Texas, now 81 and living in Amarillo, raised five children. Her oldest child, Larry Allen May, was drafted and sent to Vietnam in April 1970. Six weeks later SGT Larry May, of the 101st Airborne Division, was killed in action. Larry’s mother wrote these words as a lasting tribute to his life and an expression of the love that she has for her son.
Each morning as I wake up at dawn.
To know you will never again see a sunrise.
You were always so warm hearted and gay,
It indeed seems very, very sad.
I remember the day you began school,
You were so happy with no worry or care.
The proudness I felt in my heart
Will never be forgotten so soon.
As you enter High School, Oh how proud you were!
You had so much ahead of you.
And on your Graduation Day
It was a special day in May.
Then off to college you decided to go,
And met lots of true and loyal friends.
Your life was so mixed up and the world in a mess,
You felt you had a duty to do.
You couldn’t get studies on your mind,
Cause of the military service waiting for you.
You made a big decision which you thought was right,
By doing your duty for your Country.
You had a year of service out of the way,
And were on your way to Vietnam.
That was the hardest day of my life,
You didn’t see my tears which came after the plane left,
I know you had them cause you didn’t look back.
You got on the plane so tall and proud,
I still wonder what was on your mind.
I was so sad, so very sad.
Cause in my heart I knew you would never return.
I can be very proud of you for being so brave,
You died for your family and what you believe in.
The day I feared finally came,
The news that you had been killed.
You were counting the days till you would return home,
But guess you are in heaven in your real home.
The days go by and my thoughts are always on you,
To know that you are as happy as can be.
So be a good guy and help us who are left here,
Please be there to greet me when God calls me.
Lillian May, special mom, this Memorial Day is for you and the tens of thousands of special moms just like you.