28 May 2018

Memorial Day 2018; We remember

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. Today the United States honours its war dead, from all of America’s wars. And it is right that we honor those that have given their lives for their country, and to honour those who stayed at home waiting for them, worried daily about the possible telegram, the knock on the door, the closed casket.

For Vietnam, we honour our lost with “The Wall”, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. On Panel 10W, Line 61 is the name John Darling. My cousin. All the words below cannot change the horrible loss suffered by his direct family, my extended family. A hero's death in the service of your country is still a death in the family, a death that they had been hoping would not visit this of all families.

In 1994 at Fort Gordon in Georgia, a building was dedicated to him memory. His bio reads:

“John Darling received his commission as a 2nd Lt. in the U.S Army Signal Corps upon graduation from West Point, USMA in 1968. Assigned to service in Vietnam in 1969. Was present during a combat assault on an abandoned Fire Support Base Ripcord. The firebase came under intense hostile mortar fire and his Battalion's Tactical Operations Center received a direct hit, wounding the Executive Officer and several other men. Lt. Darling immediately assumed command then administered first aid to the casualties. Braving the impacting rounds, he carried a wounded man to the medical evac helicopter, then returned to the command post to direct armed helicopter support of the Extraction Operation. For his gallantry, he was awarded the Silver Star. Less than two months later, on 18 May 1970, 1st Lt. Darling was killed in action. He died a hero's death when, on the eve of his rest and relaxation leave, his helicopter was shot down as he voluntarily returned to a Fire Support Base that was under attack. 1st Lt. Darlings numberous awards include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Parachutist Badge, and the Ranger Tab.”

What that does not say is the horror of the news in the family, the grief, and the ripple effect out into his wider family. There is a flag held in reverence by the family - "from a grateful nation". I was too young to know what had happened, but it was clear that something had. Later I was told that it took a few days to find the wreckage of the helicopter.

The story goes that in the early years of the Vietnam War (going back to the 1950s, the tigers would run from the sound of gunfire and explosions. As the war continued, the tigers learned that those sounds meant there was a higher chance of fresh meat, and instead of running way, they would wait, the approach the area.

John Darling had a “closed casket” funeral. The family was not able to see what was left of him, my cousin.  

Soon America is going to lose another hero, John McCain. His politics might not be fully to my liking; that is quite irrelevant. He was of the Vietnam era as well, and could very well have been killed in action like my cousin John Darling. He wasn’t, but he came damned close. Instead he spend years in as a POW, was tortured and left permanently disabled.

When offered to chance to be freed as a gesture of goodwill, he refused unless the other POWs were released as well.

He will die soon, and when he does, it will not be a Senator who has died, but another young name killed in an America war.

There are those today who belittle what has happened, and worse, who smear that names of those that fought and died, in Vietnam and in all of America’s wars. Never do that. They gave, and their families gave, willingly (and some not so willingly due to a draft) for their country. We remember the soldiers and service members who died for their country, because their country asked for their service, and they gave it.

That is the cost of civilization. Not the cost of freedom, the cost of civilization.

This sacrifice is not unique to Americans. In the National War Memorial in Wellington, New Zealand, a poem is carved into the wall, remembering those who fought and died in World War 1. These are words that I cannot read out loud, for my throat constricts when I try. It reads:

Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.

Memorial Day should not be the only day we remember them. We must remember them every day, and take from their sacrifice the knowledge that a new world was made, however impure or inconsistent with the world that was desired.

So on Memorial Day, we should also remember the words of Kamel Ataturk, who as a Captain in the Ottoman Empire’s army at Gallipoli, rallied the Turkish troops and turned them back to stop the New Zealanders, Australians and British who were invading his country.  At the dedication of a Gallipoli Memorial in Wellington, the Turkish ambassador presented and urn of dirt from Gallipoli to be placed under the memorial. At memorials in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, the quote attributed to Ataturk is carved:

You mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries! Wipe away your tears. Your sons are in our bosom. They are in peace. After having lost their lives on this soil they have become our sons as well.

From the pain of loss have come new worlds and new relationships. So we must remember the sacrifices made, and look to a better world, we hope, that their sacrifices contributed to making.