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My Memorial Day Tradition

Personal Reflections on Band of Brothers

Last year I started a Memorial Day tradition of reading a book about World War II around that holiday. I read several books on military history every year and I picked up a copy of Walter Lord's Miracle at Dunkirk in late May, 2019. I unknowingly started reading this book on the 79th anniversary of the evacuation of British and French forces from Dunkirk and I finished the book on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. On Memorial Day, which occurred during this time, I found myself more cognizant of the actions and sacrifices of the world's veterans than ever before.

Memorial Day is a day set aside in the United States for honoring and mourning military personnel who died while serving in the Armed Forces. The day has unfortunately become a national sales event defined by consumerism and the official start for many summer events, but the original significance of the holiday is quite sober. Like many Americans, I had forgotten the meaning behind Memorial Day, and was only appreciative of having a three day weekend. Reading Miracle at Dunkirk on and around Memorial Day had a dramatic effect on my mentality towards the national holiday and increased my respect for all of America's veterans.

To recapture last year's contemplative mindset I started reading The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters on May 8 (the 75th anniversary of the allies defeating Nazi Germany), Major Winters was a member of the 101st Airborne Division and commander of the 506th Parachute Infantry Battalion. He and the men under his command played a pivotal role in several major battles during the end of World War II. Their actions were portrayed in the award-winning HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and since I have the ability to stream that series I thought it would be fitting to read Major Winter's memoirs concurrently with watching Band of Brothers. I was not prepared for the impact this exercise would have on me. I completed both the book and the television series on May 20, but the self-reflection that came about, as a result, will likely affect me for quite a long time.

What have I done?

two men arm wrestling
Dick Winters (right) and his friend Captain Lewis Nixon

The first thing that struck me like a rod of iron while reading Winter's memoir was his age while he fought in World War II. HBO was very intentional in making Band of Brothers as realistic as possible, but one thing they were unable to replicate was the youth of the characters. It's easy to forget that battles are fought by teenagers and twenty-somethings when watching war movies with actors in their 30's or 40's playing the main roles. Dick Winters was 26 years old when he fought his first battle, the same age as me. As a paratrooper, he was dropped behind enemy lines the night prior to D-Day in order to prepare the way for the main invasion force. The plane he jumped out of was flying too fast, so all of his equipment and weapons were ripped off of his body by the planes jetstream. He started the war surrounded by Nazis equipped with only the clothes on his back and a boot knife.

Despite facing impossible adversity he pulled together supplies and men and took charge when his commanding officer was nowhere to be found. Unbeknownst to Dick Winters, the plane that carried his commander was shot down before reaching its drop zone. By the time Winters' feet touched the ground in Normandy he was the seniormost surviving officer in his entire company, and therefore in charge. He would go on to lead his men through several engagements with the enemy that night and the next morning. The battle climaxed in a charge on an artillery position that was shelling men on Omaha Beach. Winters lead the attack with such precision and effectiveness that his strategy is now taught at West Point.

The achievement of such a legacy at a young age made me reflect on my own life at age 26. I have done a few noteworthy things in my life, but I don't stack up well in comparison to what the men who fought on D-Day accomplished. Reading about these events left me feeling inadequate for several days, and I soon became envious of the opportunity given to Winters and others of the WWII generation to prove their greatness.

Becoming Envious of Terrible Times

Winters would prove himself a dozen times over as an astute leader in battle and was eventually given command of his entire battalion. The weight of his responsibilities is well communicated in both the written word and on the screen. His new duties were performed under unbelievable circumstances, as the 506th experienced a casualty rate of 150% (Winters was even wounded during the war), and was given increasingly more dangerous missions. His men were pushed beyond their breaking point during the Battle of the Bulge but held together thanks to Winters' exemplary leadership. He made it a point to lead by example, even shaving in his fox hole every morning while the enemy's shells were exploding around him. Out of these terrible times in battle, Dick Winters rose to an upper echelon of heroism and leadership that few achieve. His character was forged by the hottest of fires.

Today's current events surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic are likely the toughest circumstances I have experienced in my lifetime. It's certainly an unprecedented emergency but compares poorly to the trials and devastation of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, or any major conflict. These circumstances have created no great forge for character. In fact, the pandemic has brought out the worst in people. Ironically, while living through the worst national emergency of my lifetime, I became jealous of those men and women who lived through harder times.

Changing My Perspective

So I decided that I missed my chance to forge exceptional character and leadership. If today's pandemic can't create such an opportunity, what can? My opportunity to prove myself might never arrive. I'm not the type to become depressed, but I was low for about a day before my wife noticed. We took a walk, and with her gentle guidance I came to realize that my perspective was off. My desire to have a wartime experience was actually showing disrespect to the sacrifice made by the men and women of our Armed Forces.

I have been lucky to be alive during one of the most peaceful times in world history, and have lived the majority of my life without fear of endangerment. Certainly there are aspects of society that need to be improved upon, but the world today would be the envy of any person from any previous age. With this realization I reflected back on the achievements of Major Dick Winters with a new perspective. He and his men fought so that the world might one day be free from tyranny and fear. The life of peace and prosperity that I have thus far enjoyed is the fruit of the labors and sacrifices of our servicemen and women. These individuals have sacrificed their youth, bodies, mental health, and lives so that the majority of those in the United States (like me) never have to. This a debt I cannot possibly repay, but can certainly acknowledge.

flags next to gravestones

Remembering Those Who Gave it all

This Memorial Day I will remember those who sacrificed everything for my freedoms and safety like most other Americans: I'll grill, stay outside as much as I can, and drink (root)beer. But the fact that many Americans are buried in battlefields far from home will not escape me this Monday. The peaceful life I live is possible because of the price paid by the men and women who have died in the Armed Forces. To squander that would be the equivalent of defiantly standing on their graves.

So my tradition of reading a book about WWII succeeded again in producing a contemplative and sober mentality heading into Memorial Day. It has also challenged me to acknowledge the tremendous opportunities afforded to me thanks to the sacrifices of others. In my twenties, I have been able to attend and graduate college, travel the world, marry my best friend, and start a family. I do not fight battles and wars, but I can thank God I do not have to. Instead I get to live a life so many never had the chance to experience.

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