Hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, relaxing by the pool or spending the day at the beach, the unofficial beginning of summer and a much needed day off of work–that’s what Memorial Day is to most people. Sure, many Americans stop for a minute to reflect on why we celebrate Memorial Day, even though “celebrate” seems like such an odd choice of words as we remember those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. But for those of us with loved ones in the military, Memorial Day is much more bittersweet and a reminder of just how lucky we are that we can still enjoy the barbeques and fun in the sun.
My first Memorial Day as a military spouse so many years ago was spent without my husband. He was on his first deployment and I was living at home, saving money until he returned. It was, of course, hard being away from him, but I was young and had plenty of company to keep me preoccupied while he was gone. This was pre- 9/11 and my husband was also thoroughly enjoying his time underway. His ship still had an important mission to accomplish, but America was not at war and a big part of the operation included showing off the great US Navy to the world.
When he returned in August of 2000, we were finally together and blissfully happy. His deployment had been routine and he came home with lots of stories of all the ports he had visited including Greece, Ireland, Turkey, and Italy, just to name a few. One such port was during a scheduled refueling and it was so uneventful that he did not even mention it until October of that year. I may not have ever even known he had stopped there had the unthinkable not happened. In October of 2000, the USS Cole pulled into that same port for the same routine refueling but unfortunately this was anything but ordinary. A small boat filled with explosives pulled alongside the warship and detonated, killing seventeen of the finest men in the Navy and seriously wounding another thirty nine.
The idea that this could have actually happened on a “routine” deployment was shocking to me. I know I was naïve, but the bombing of the USS Cole changed the way I viewed my husband’s job forever. These men were not on the front lines. They weren’t under fire or even aware that something was amiss. These men were lining up for lunch and in a split second their lives were changed forever. All I could think for a long time was that my husband had been at that same place only two months before and how easily it could have been him. I had never thought about how quickly life could go from ordinary and boring to tragic and unforgettable. It was also the first time that I had to face the fact that someone I loved had a job that was inherently dangerous and that a soldier’s safety was never guaranteed.
This is not to say that I dwell on these events. I consider myself one of the luckier military spouses in that when my husband deploys I do not worry about his safety on a continual basis. I cannot worry about him incessantly, or I would cease to function. I have to hold down the home front and raise two children, and constant fear is not a welcome addition to all of the other stressors already on hand. Thankfully, it is easier for me not to agonize because he is not on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan and I know he is well trained and well prepared for his mission while aboard his ship. When he calls or writes and tells me about his day, usually it involves him being hot and bored most of the time, which I am all too happy to hear. While boredom is grounds for mischief and troublemaking, it is for the most part, safe. He himself even jokes to me that he is more likely to hurt himself by tripping down some stairs or bumping his head than getting seriously wounded in action. I know that he tells me this to placate my fears, but it works for our relationship and I appreciate it. But in the back of my mind, I always remember the sailors aboard the USS Cole, and how they were probably bored too.
And while I do not brood over the Cole bombings, I think it is equally as important not to forget the incident. Every time my husband steps foot onto his ship to go underway, whether it be for a day or an extended deployment, I think about those sailors aboard the USS Cole and even more so, their families. I am humbly reminded that even though the members of our armed services sign up for the job they do, and are aware of the risks, they are still heroes who spend time away from their loved ones to keep America safe. I think about how lucky my family is that we have never had to deal with tragedy but how quickly that could change. I think of all the soldiers that are currently deployed on the ground and at sea and those who may not make it back home. So not just on Memorial Day, but also every other, remember these heroes, because they should not be forgotten.