Memorial Day thoughts from a physician

Truthfully, I am not from a military family.  Naturally, my grandfathers were in the service, but they didn’t die serving.  Also, my birthday has always fallen on Memorial Day weekend, or near it.  So rather than visiting a cemetery, we usually have a small party.  For some reason, perhaps it’s the political divisiveness in my beloved country, I have been thinking more and more about Memorial Day.

To my understanding, Memorial Day is meant to remember those who died while serving.  Veterans Day is to honor the service of all U.S. military veterans.  Sometimes I get caught up in semantics and word meaning.  When I hear Memorial Day is a day to honor those who “died while serving” it says to my perhaps limited understanding that it’s meant mostly for those service members who died in battle or soon after injuries sustained in battle.  But I think it should be so much more than that.

As a geriatrician, I have seen many veterans young and old as my patients.  They have chronic physical and mental health issues as a direct result of their time in military service.  Physically, it’s often missing limbs, or COPD (many solidify their tobacco use in service), or chemical exposures, or even a cancer related to exposures during the service, or possibly a STD acquired.  Mentally, well, it can be heartbreaking to witness.  PTSD, chronic depression, addictions started while trying to cope with the horrors of war, isolation from family, or the pain of a new chronic injury, broken relationships, survivor’s guilt, the list goes on and on.  While these men and women may have survived their time in service, they will have lifelong personal battles with chronic illness as a direct result of their experiences and sacrifices in the service, both physical and mental, that will often cut their lives shorter than the average American.

It doesn’t matter that with their service they were entitled to veteran’s benefits (which are highly underfunded and thus can’t handle the number of persons they need to serve).  They have, in living, sacrificed much, and for many, there is a very strong chance their death was, or eventual death will be related to something originating during their time in the service.

This is not to take away from the rightful honor and memory of those who truly did die in service or in battle.  As an American, I am eternally grateful to those who gave their lives in battle.

However, I am also grateful on this Memorial Day to any of the souls who have passed on but gave their time in the service while in this life.  My beautiful young cousin lost her husband to a car accident this year.  Her husband was deployed on the East Coast; she lived with their newborn 3-month-old daughter on the West Coast.  They were separated by the entire country, and while the car accident which killed him was unrelated to battle, he was still killed nonetheless while serving, separated from his beloved new family.

For anyone who was a service member in the U.S. military who has passed away, I have seen as a physician how their sacrifice in the service ultimately had ripple effects on the remainder of their lives, and in turn, their loved ones’ lives.  To the families of the veterans who committed suicide on their return, I am grateful to your loved one for giving their life for me, and your grief is not in vein.  I am so sorry for your loss.  To those who lost their service member to addiction or overdose, I am grateful for your sacrifice.  To the families who lost a service member ultimately because of a physical ailment such as COPD, cancer or even chronic wounds from physical debility sustained in service, I am grateful for your loved one and your sacrifice.  To all those who were service members at one point in their earthly life and have since died, I am grateful.

Whether they died in battle, while still in the service, or years after their return, our veterans’ sacrifice is more than anyone of us non-service members can truly appreciate.  The wounds (both physical and mental) that many service members sustain while in the service stay with them and directly impact their lives outside the service and the lives of those who love and care for them.  Those wounds also impact ultimately how they eventually die.

I want us to remember this on Memorial Day as well.  Perhaps it’s already known, and not being a military family I don’t get to see it.  However, I hope we can change the common explanation of Memorial Day from “a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving” to a day of remembering the women and men who were service members who died.  If we need to be more clear than that, it could be a day of remembering any service member who has died, and whose wounds from the service, mental or physical, either directly or indirectly, played a role in their death.  Their lives and deaths are a testament to their sacrifice for our nation, and for each American individually.

Shannon Tapia is a geriatrician who blogs at Medicine on Tap.

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