As a youngster growing up in northeast Ohio, I loved the sights, smells and sounds of Memorial Day. But more importantly, I could reel off the "true" meaning of the day as easily as I could recite the Apostle's Creed during Mass, which, for an Italian Catholic kid, better be second nature.
In singsong rhythm I could repeat: "Memorial Day is when we honor soldiers who have fallen in defense of our nation, those brave men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice to ensure freedom and prosperity for the United States."
From a young age, I was taught that sacrificing your life for your country was the most honorable thing anyone could do. Then I went to war.
I served two tours in Iraq. Now I'm a 26-year-old ex-infantryman with combat five years behind me. And I wonder: What is the true meaning of Memorial Day? And why do we fight?
I was in the Army more than five years, and I spent more than half my time overseas as an infantry soldier in the 101st Airborne Division. In 2005, my brigade deployed to the northern oil hub of Kirkuk where I served 12 months, returning to Fort Campbell in September 2006. Less than a year later we were sent back, this time we spent 15 months in Samarra, which lies near the center of the so-called "Sunni Triangle."
While in Iraq, my platoon cleared routes, patrolled cities and villages, conducted raids on suspected enemy homes, guarded oil facilities and watched over pharmaceutical distributors. All of these missions were carried out, so we were told, in the defense of freedom. I knew men who were wounded, some severely. I personally knew a few who were killed. I saw men changed permanently. I know I was.
As a young soldier, I began the fight believing in the mission to my very core. We were in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. After the WMD claims dissolved, I fought to stabilize the region and get rid of the al-Qaida insurgency in Iraq.
Like many other American soldiers and civilians, I was manipulated into believing that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were interchangeable enemies, both guilty of the same thing. Each of us had our rationalization for fighting, our own personal excuse for being in the war. When I realized that much of the fighting resulted from our very presence in the country, I clung to my Catholic faith.
Catholicism helped me cope with my involvement in Iraq in different ways. It was a comfort for me, especially during the hard times, and gave me a reason to stay in the fight. I began to fight to convert people to my belief system, and would discuss the differences between Christianity and Islam with my interpreter, an Iraqi national, and any other Iraqi civilian who would listen.
I kept laminated prayer cards, depicting Gabriel, St. Michael, the pope and a crusader's cross, in my utility pocket. For me, the fight became a holy one, a sort of modern crusade. A myriad of reasons, rationalizations, excuses.
But then I finally admitted the truth to myself. I was fighting so that the United States could ensure its interests in the region whether it was oil, strategic troop placement or finding an additional ally in the Middle East — or a combination of them all. And you might think I became disillusioned. While it is true that I am no longer religious, I did not allow my time overseas to have a negative impact on my life. I have come to terms with my service in Iraq and realized that fighting for economic interests, while not as ennobling as fighting for freedom, actually protects the American way of life in its own fashion. In retrospect, we shouldn't have gone to Iraq, but once we were there, we had little choice but to complete the mission.
Regardless of how the American public feels about the war in Iraq, maintaining our standard of living sometimes comes at a high cost. War, and other subtler military moves, must be made in order for our nation to remain in contention as a world superpower and maintain the prosperity we have enjoyed for the last century. What makes the difference is how we commemorate the men and women who have died to protect our prosperity.
Military service in Iraq has made me question how we should remember those who have died, as well as those who live with the scars of war. I believe that Memorial Day should serve as a lesson to our children about the true cost of war — the cost beyond the trillions of dollars, the price paid by families and friends who try to help a soldier with severe PTSD sleep through the night, the mothers who are forced to arrange a burial for a soldier killed in combat.
Our military ensures the American way of life that so many of us take for granted. Celebrating our nation's unique living conditions with a barbecue, boat ride or trip to the pool is great, but remember what these luxuries cost and pass that knowledge on to your children. Let them know the reality of war. For me, it meant that some men that I served with would never come home.
Ever since my service in the military, Memorial Day has become something more somber, more real. I'm sure any family that has lost a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan understands how I feel.
I'm not saying that people shouldn't celebrate; by all means fire up the grills and get your children layered in sunblock for the beach. But, even if only for a moment, pause Monday and imagine what the families of wounded and fallen soldiers are doing, and make Memorial Day count.