There was a guy that I roomed with for awhile at VMI. The second semester of our first year we ended up in the same room together with a ‘jock’ and an evangelical as foils to our prior-service background, meaning we’d each been enlisted for awhile. That first year at VMI is both a good and a bad experience, depending on one’s point of view. The marine was a great guy, but very serious. Yet when it came to the others in the room, specifically the one steeped in the Blood of the Lamb, he had little patience. Proselytization wasn’t appreciated. So, one morning for reasons little more than an uwillingness to be preached to by someone both unbearably friendly and naïve, he dabbed shaving cream on his head, placed two pointed cups in the shaving cream, and started chasing the ‘preacher’ around the room yelling, “I’m the devil [name here]! I’m here for your soul!”, in what constitutes the funniest scene I’ve witnessed in person, in context, ever. The evangelical left to help his father’s business at the end of the first year, completing what I felt at the time was the greatest waste of a year of endured hazing ever recorded.
The marine and I remained friends throughout our cadetship, though at sort of a distance. He was very gung ho about his line of work and I tended to view my future as the inevitable necessity that it would prove to become. He was recently awarded a bronze star for valor in the execution of an operation that found him placing himself in harm’s way willingly and repeatedly in the process of taking a number of lives during the course of saving his own and those under his charge.
Among the seemingly endless indignities that befall ‘rats’ during the first year of one’s cadetship, there is a potential and very momentary slice of redemption that comes through the opportunity to fire the evening gun during guard mount. Every night, a different company executes the changing of the guard team, which includes a formal ceremony wherein mostly first years are subject to an inspection of their weapons, followed by marching a certain post inside or outside of barracks for an hour at a time over the course of an entire day and night. During the guard mount ceremony, a ‘rat’ mans the howitzer and following the sounding of Retreat, yanks the cord, fires the evening gun *boom*, then turns and salutes the flag as it’s lowered while the bugler plays To The Colors.
It’s all very martial, as you can imagine. And cathartic in the way that explosions can tend to be.
The things that cross my mind when I hear about decorations being awarded and people being celebrated for their selfless service are the state of the awardees’ minds following the awarding of the decoration(s). They can be the heaviest weights sometimes. There’s a disconnect between surviving and being alive in the eyes of the ones who survive for a living. Memorial Day reminds me of all the times I’ve spent in far away places wondering if I was in the right place, doing the right thing for the right reasons. I’m far removed from those questions now and know that the answer was always ‘yes’ after the fact. We’re always where we belong, as far as that goes. I worry about my friends, though. There’s nothing I can do for them.
I sit in front of a marble slab and think for a living now. I’m exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I need to be doing. This is true almost in spite of my best efforts. Yet despite all this, I always seem to feel like I’ve left something behind too soon. Every time I hear about friends being ‘decorated’, I remember all the ones that I knew that couldn’t deal with it. I ended up leaving, mostly against my will, and sit now on the outside looking in. I don’t think I ever gave closure to that part of my life and I see it played out in the trepidation I feel for all these people still in the service, many of whom I haven’t seen in years. I wonder if it’s me I worry about or them. I have a hard time being honest with myself about these things. I told the folks in the lab that I was heading back to D.C. to spend Memorial Day with military friends and they asked if it was business or pleasure. ‘Pleasure’, I said with a chuckle. I don’t really know, though.
The evening gun is fired at the last note of Retreat and the flag is lowered, but remains perpetually at half staff for a lot of people. Our society tends to think that decorations are the culmination of a military career. Often enough, they end up marking where the flag stops descending. All those who died in training accidents or in fire fights with people determined to think differently and especially those who were where they were supposed to be despite the odds and survived in spite of fate; my good friends. I wish I could take it all back. Know that every drink I take is for you.
Sir @ May 29, 2010