Remember — and remember those still here

Memorial Day weekend is both a moment of celebration and reflection — which of course sounds contradictory, but that’s the nature of holidays. Griping about how people miss the ‘true meaning’ of the day to my mind is a bit pointless, simply because all official holidays are like that to one degree or another — the whole point is you don’t have to work on the day and therefore you can relax, which is what most of humanity wants to do anyway.

That sounds a bit dismissive, I realize, but as longtime readers know, I’m the product of a military family, and therefore I don’t take Memorial Day lightly at all. My dad’s uncle died in France in World War II, for example, while my mom’s father served in the Navy during the war, and his experiences there might well have contributed to his untimely passing when she was young — and of course my dad himself served in the Navy for thirty years after graduating from Annapolis, etc. For me to say ‘it’s just a holiday’ would be ridiculous. Still, we each negotiate the question of remembrance and the importance of the day as we do, and I am always quietly but profoundly grateful that my dad never found himself on a casualty list, or that I only knew him through photographs and others’ memories.

One who did find himself on a casualty list is the focus of a moving piece today over at the NY Times, Shurvon Phillip is his name:

In Iraq’s Anbar Province, in May 2005, Shurvon, who joined the Marine reserves seven years earlier at 17, partly as a way to pay his community-college tuition, was riding back to his base after a patrol when an anti-tank mine exploded under his Humvee. The Humvee’s other soldiers were tossed in different directions and dealt an assortment of injuries: concussions, broken bones, herniated discs. Along with a broken jaw and a broken leg, Shurvon suffered one of the war’s signature wounds on the American side: though no shrapnel entered his head, the blast rattled his brain profoundly.

In the explosion’s aftermath, Shurvon was airlifted to the American military’s hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and then to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where Gail saw him for the first time since he was sent to war a few months before. By that point a portion of the left side of his skull had been cut away to relieve the pressure of the casing of bone against his swelling brain. “His head,” she told me, “looked like a ball with the air half out of it.” She was confronted, too, with a CT scan taken by the hospital. “I didn’t do much biology, but I’m thinking, That’s not a brain I’m looking at,” she said, describing her reaction. “Everyone has a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere, but this didn’t look like that. Do you remember Play-Doh? When children play with Play-Doh” — she slammed her palms together to demonstrate — “it’s just a gray blob. That was Shurvon’s brain.”

This is not a place for political discussion on the rights and wrongs of Iraq — I’ve said my piece and will continue to say it elsewhere on here as I see appropriate, so shall we all. The noting of the human cost — and this is one person among many, each case the story of an individual going through something that hopefully most of us will never, ever have to — is enough; the story in full says much more as to what that involves, and I strongly encourage you to read it.

I sense through this story, filtered through my thoughts on and observations of young servicemen and women in general, that Phillip would be profoundly embarrassed by this level of personal attention through the story to one degree or another — that he would rather we all focus on others he might feel were in worse situations, or on the memories of those he knew that were no longer here, or on the struggles of his family to see him through to the best of their abilities. But his thoughts and conclusions, above all else, are his own, and I do hope that he will yet be able to say them much more clearly. Strange to say, but this is a story of hope in the end, one that demonstrates that terrible truth that war does provide more in the way of medical advances, as new techniques and the reapplication of other ones provide possible routes forward.

But it is still one step at a time. Yet remember him, and remember them all who serve and have served. No placing on pedestals, please, no plaster saints, no projections of hyperpatriotism — but neither insults, mockery, smug senses of superiority, jocular dismissals. Those who serve are neither automatically elevated nor degraded by their choices, they are human, they have taken a particular path, and like us all must live with their decisions, sometimes with conviction and sometimes with regret. This is life.

And Phillip lives. Long may he.

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