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Reflections on serving

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A Minnesota soldier sits on a park bench in a photo taken in 1943. (Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Photograph Collection ca. 1943 ,Location no. E448.25 p5 , Nega)
Minnesota Public Radio's Public Insight Journalism unit asked veterans and families of veterans to reflect upon the meaning of their service and sacrifice. Below are their thoughts.

Middleton, WI

My maternal grandfather, Matthias Weber of West Bend, WI, served in World War I, was killed, and is buried at Meuse-Argonne Cemetery in France. My mother was born a few months before he left for duty. She never had a chance to truly know him. I have the few things of his -- momentos my maternal grandmother kept and handed down to my mother who then handed them down to me: his blood-stained wallet with the 1917-1918 wallet-sized calendar inside, his name written in his handwriting, and a coin (although I cannot make out what type of coin it is, whether American, French or German, and I can only guess it is dated 1918, but it is too old to see) -- all of which the government gave to my grandmother when they informed her of his being killed in action. I display his Medal of Honor as well.

My grandfather's service in World War I might not mean as much to me as it does if my father had not also served our country. Coincidentally, my father was stationed in France, near the Meuse-Argonne region, so my family actually lived in the region where my grandfather fought. We visited his grave, and paid tribute to him and all the other soldiers who bravely fought, died and are buried there.

My own father, originally of Boston, Massachusetts, served our country during three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He never really talked about it unless I was prodding him for information. He felt that most men served their country and fought, so he did not feel special or heroic. I display the flag which covered his casket when he died, along with his Medal of Honor.

These are two men who served to protect our country and/or fought for freedom on foreign soil. Memorial Day is a day I pay tribute to them and to all others like them:

Regardless of the war or battle fought, Regardless of native origin, Regardless of skin color, Regardless of religion, Regardles of gender, Regardless of age, Regardless of IQ, Regardless of military branch or rank, Regardless of what soil they fought on, Regardless if the fight was/is "good or bad," Regardless if the fight was/is "right or wrong," Regardless if they died or remain living --

The men and women who serve(d) their country will always be heroes. Memorial Day is the best day to pay tribute to each of them individually, and to all of them as a group for their difficult and often thankless service to our country and to each of us.

St. Paul, MN

An uncle and five great-uncles served in World War II. My two grandfathers served in World War I -- one on the Western Front and one in Russia. As new immigrants or first-generation Americans, they fought because it was their duty, and because they had been called to serve. All but the grandfather in Russia saw action. The Western Front grandfather, the uncle, and at least one great-uncle were wounded. One was cited for shooting down a Kamikaze plane from his gun position on a cruiser; one helped liberate a concentration camp.

All but two of these men are now dead. In memory of those deceased, and in memory of all the brave men and women who have served and/or died for the United States, I will honor Memorial Day 2006.

God Bless our brave troops and God Bless America!

St. Paul, MN

As a child in St. Louis, I remember going with many other families to Jefferson Barracks to show respect for the dead from WWII and the Korean war. I didn't know the meaning, at age 6 or 7, I only saw the flags gaily blowing in the breeze, the flowers, families picnicking, the band playing marches.

I saw my mother cry when they finished with Auld Lang Syne. I asked her about the beauty of the place and her crying, which was frightening. I was very happy in my childhood ignorance until she explained to me that each and every flag was on the grave of a dead soldier; and that she cried for all her childhood friends who would never come back from WWII.

Now at 64 years old, with 6 grandsons, I don't want to lose any of them due to false bravado and political lies. I advocate the Peace Corps over the military for service to our country.

New Auburn, MN

Memorial Day is meaningful to me because despite tours of duty in both World War II and Vietnam, no one in my family has died in war since the Civil War, thanks to the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to save fellow soldiers.

Minneapolis, MN

On Memorial Day, I will be thinking about my great-uncle, Henry A. Schuster (1891-1918), whom I never met. He died at Fort Des Moines, IA, while stationed there after being drafted for World War I. He died of the flu, as did millions of others in 1918. Because of this, I have a more personal take on the recent warnings of another bird flu that could be just as devastating.

Fergus Falls, MN

My late father Curtis was in the U.S. Army during World War II, and I have always been proud of his service. I served in the Army during the Vietnam War, and although I was fortunate in returning unscathed, I lost two friends there. I remain proud of them.

This Memorial Day I will be thinking of the very special young men from Fergus Falls whose National Guard unit has been mobilized for duty in Iraq, men of whom I am exceedingly proud. Although our communities may have differing views of the U.S. policy that sent troops there, I see nothing but fierce pride in the men and women who are serving their country -- you and me -- in Iraq, and in other hot spots around the world.

St. Paul, MN

I don't know which is worse: the dead soldiers I knew, or those I didn't. I wasn't good friends with any of the soldiers my unit lost in Iraq, and the survivor's guilt is made worse by how little I knew those who didn't survive. If I knew him at all, why didn't I know him better? Why didn't I ever inquire into anything deeper than his weekend activities? If I didn't know him as more than another face in the formation, why had I never taken the time? Why did I simply nod as we passed each other on a morning run, as if we had all the time in the world?

Now they are gone, and the chance to know them is gone too. All that is left is the sense that I betrayed their memories by having no memories of them, and the sense that I did not really value them as comrades until they were gone. Do I think more of them now that they are dead? What kind of person does that make me?

And what of the others, those almost-forgotten soldiers who sacrificed all but everything? Those soldiers coming home not in body bags but in wheelchairs and prosthetics to long therapy and a young life's plan now completely cast aside? Do I remember their names and their faces? They have sacrificed just as surely as the dead, haven't they? No more "Waltzing Matilda" for them.

Nevertheless, it's the dead we remember. We memorialize them with a simple service and a solemn salute, a small black wristband, and a brother's heartfelt prayer in a soldier's uncouth language: "Please, God, take those bastards straight to heaven. Haven't they earned it?"

St. Paul, MN

I remember my cousin Tommy, forever 18, who died in Vietnam less than a month after arriving in country in 1969. He was the first (and perhaps only) Marine killed in Vietnam to be buried at sea. His father, Bill Moffitt, was career Navy.

Eagan, MN

I think of Memorial Day as a time to honor my grandfather, who fought with the Marines at Guadalcanal in World War II. He didn't die there, but he came home with two Purple Hearts. He has since passed away, but up to the day of his death, he was proud to be a former Marine. Every year on November 10, the Marine Corps birthday, he called up his buddies and shouted, "Happy Birthday, Marine!" into the phone. Happy Memorial Day, Grandad. I love you.

St. Paul, MN

A huge proportion of the men in my family have been in the armed services, many in times of war. While none in my generation or my parents' generation have died on the battlefield, war and military service have had a huge impact on my life. Alcoholism as a response to what we can now identify as post traumatic stress disorder affected my maternal grandfather and uncles on both sides of my family.

My dad was drafted into the Air Force when he was 19 and served in Vietnam with two of his brothers. While he could have challenged the draft since he would have immediate family already in wartime service, he chose not to. As a woman who was born in same year as the fall of Saigon, it is a choice I both deeply respect and have very little real understanding of. The one thing I do know about my dad's service: it moved our family into the middle class. He went to college on the GI Bill and was a career officer in the Army. He retired in the mid 1990s, just as my brother, Michael, decided to join the Navy at age 29.

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