Memorial day is a day to remember and honor the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who, since April 19th, 1775, have given their lives in the service of our country.
Photo by Richard M. McErlean Jr.
Since Project Vigil's inception in 2013, we have taken literally thousands of pictures. These pictures have helped to chronicle the development of Project Vigil, and demonstrate our work in trying to achieve our unique goal: to always remember the great Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. For Memorial Day, 2020, I would like to share with you, the one picture out of the thousands, that has made the greatest impact on me.
Photo by Richard M. McErlean Jr.
This picture, taken in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, on June 5th, 2015, best captures the essence, not only of Project Vigil or Memorial Day, but of military service. We've named this photo "Shattered Families." For anyone who has ever visited any of the 26 American military cemeteries, they will tell you that there are few things as heartbreaking as the sight of the endless sea of markers, each representing a fallen soldier. Each one of those markers also represents a life cut short, a heartbroken mother, who never was able to live her life the same way again, knowing that her baby would never return to her. It represents a father, who lost his son or daughter, and will never be able to hold that person in his arms, the way he had the day that child was born. It represents a spouse, who not only endured the demanding life of a military wife or husband, but now has to raise a child, or two, or three, without the help of his or her significant other. It represents a child, who might never know who their parent really was, and by that, will never truly know who they are themselves. Each marker represents a family, shattered for generations to come.
In 2013, my father and I started working on three biographies of paratroopers killed in action on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. In June 2014 I would recite those biographies to visitors at the American Cemetery in Colleville. One of the young men we were writing about was named George Radeka (click here to see the post I made about him). When we first contacted George's family, we spoke with his niece Judy. She had an excellent memory of her family history, but knew little of "Uncle" George. We asked Judy to speak with other family members to see if anyone had any stories to tell about Uncle George. Sadly, no one else had anything to add. Thanks to Judy's help, we were able to enrich George's biography with details about his family life in general. But what we found most upsetting was that when George was killed in June 1944, his family stopped talking about him. In a way, his death made it like he had never existed at all. As Judy put it, "After Uncle George was killed, my grandmother never left the house again. It broke her and it broke my grandfather. So in my family, talking about Uncle George was taboo. It was too heartbreaking, so he was never mentioned again."
Several years later, I was on the phone with Judy at Christmas time and she brought up George. She told me that after we had sent her the biography we'd written, she shared it with the family and this had, in a way, resurrected him. It was like for the first time in 70 years he was back in the family again. George had ceased to be a taboo subject, and was even honored in a church service. The grieving process, even generations later... 70 years later... was still going on, but fortunately it had finally reached the point where George could be talked about openly and remembered fondly. The lesson I learned from this was clear: by remembering George, by the simple act of remembering him, maybe we didn't bring him back to life, but we brought life back to him. While he was in our thoughts; he was with us... and we were with him.
It's about them
Memorial day is about George Radeka, Stanley Stockins, Phil Germer, Lawrence Roberts, Robert Wolverton... It isn't about Memorial Day being a federal holiday or "the start of summer." It most certainly isn't about the Memorial Day Sale at Home Depot, or the best recipes for a Memorial Day barbecue. No. It's about them. It's about the sacrifice they made. It's about what they stood for, and still stand for today: selflessness, humility, doing something for the right reasons, for an ideal, for the freedom of others, for a cause greater than oneself.
Those who have died in the service of our nation have set the example for us to follow, and as long as someone remembers them and what they did, their sacrifice was not made in vain. This is why I do Project Vigil. For to carry their flame is to shine a light on their lives. So please, on this Memorial Day 2020, take time to remember someone who has paid the ultimate sacrifice for something they believed in. Those heroes and their families gave everything they had and they gave it for us. The least we can do, for one day a year, is take some time and give back to them, by remembering them, their families, and the stories they left behind.