Contra Costa Times — In its younger years, before it became better known as the unofficial start to barbecue season, Memorial Day was a day of remembrance.
Originally intended to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War, it was redesignated after World War I to honor fallen Americans from all conflicts. When Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Act, which took effect in 1971, it made Memorial Day a floating component to a three-day weekend. To some, this blurred the focus of what should be a meaningful observance.
“We have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation,” said Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) in 1999, one of many years in which he introduced a bill to return the holiday to its historic date of May 30. “Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration.”
Its significance isn’t lost on everybody. Some of the most poignant reflections on Memorial Day come from the men and women of the American military who survived their combat assignment but had family or friends who did not. A few Bay Area veterans shared thoughts on the comrades they will be thinking about Monday.
Emily Yates, Oakland
Emily Yates, an Army public affairs specialist who did two tours of duty in Iraq, knew Andrew Tuazon as a friend of a friend. She remembers the three of them, Army buddies in the spring of 2004, having simple good
This Memorial Day, Yates will be thinking of Tuazon, the first of four soldiers she considered friends who were killed in Iraq. Pfc. Tuazon, of Chesapeake, Va., was killed by a sniper on May 10, 2004, just a couple days after mailing a Mother’s Day card to his mom.
“He was the first person I really knew and connected with personally who had been killed in the war,” she said.
When Yates heard that Tuazon’s 293rd Military Police Company was deploying for Iraq, she interviewed him and took his picture.
“I remember asking him, ‘What are you thinking about as you leave?’ He said, ‘I just want to get it over with and get back here.’ A couple months later I heard he’d been killed.”
Yates’ photo, which appeared with the story in The Frontline, the Fort Stewart camp newspaper, showed Yates’ friend on one side of Tuazon, and another girl was on the other side.
“It was like the bro’ picture you’d put on My Space,” Yates said.
It was also one of the last taken of Tuazon. It was displayed at his memorial service and with news accounts of his death.
Memorial Day, Yates said, “is definitely a day of remembrance. I think every day should be a day of remembrance. I definitely have people I’ll be thinking of. Every one of the people I knew personally who was killed in Iraq, they all were the sort of people that I really was happy were on earth. When I knew them, they were all very good-hearted people who would never hurt anyone to spite them. They just wanted to do their thing and get out.”
– Gary Peterson
Chris Munich, Oakland
The Marines made a strong first impression on Chris Munich. One in particular.
“I’m going to be thinking about one of my recruiters, gunny sergeant Menusa,” said Munich, who served in the Marines from 2000-06 and saw combat in Iraq. “He was one of the first ones killed in the war. He was one of my mentors.”
Born in the Philippines, gunnery sergeant Joseph Menusa grew up in San Jose and later lived in Tracy. A veteran of Desert Storm, he was killed in an ambush on March 27, 2003 while accompanying an infantry unit on its first day in Iraq. In news accounts after his death, parents of young men he had recruited recalled how comfortable they felt placing their sons in his hands.
“Just this polished look, a Marine recruiter in his dress blues,” Munich said when asked what he would remember about Menusa. “A Marine’s Marine.”
– Gary Peterson
Star Lara, Hayward
Star Lara, who served two tours in Iraq for the Army, lost comrades who died in combat. Others, including a close friend who served in the Marines, committed suicide.
For veterans, death is not far below the surface of the Memorial holiday. It is a day designed by nature to remind them of the sacrifice that their service entails — the willingness to die for their country and what that means to the people left behind.
“After you’ve experienced the sacrifice, Memorial Day is completely different,” said Lara, 35, the Women Veterans Coordinator at Swords to Plowshares.
She said she suppressed the feelings when she was deployed. It was too difficult to acknowledge her own mortality amid the danger that took the life of her fellow soldiers, to imagine “that it might be your mother who’s getting the phone call,” she said.
Now she uses Memorial Day to remember the friends who died — their laughter, the fun times, the memories that survive their death.
“Memorial Day is the one day of the year to really pull up old buried emotions about people who were close to me,” she said.
She also thinks about the families who never had a chance to say goodbye.
“It’s a real opportunity to mourn and to recognize that loss.”
– Angela Woodall
Bill Hall, Mountain View
He was a city kid, the youngest in an immigrant family of nine children from a roughneck part of Boston. When he enlisted in the Army at 25, Bill Hall was put in command of a rifle platoon that was about to take on the Germans inside their own border during what would turn out to be the decisive months of World War II. Hall was a natural leader of men, but he suffered from an obvious shortcoming in his new job.
“I had never held a rifle in my hand,” says Hall, now 94. When he reported for training in 1944, Hall was assigned as his second in command Sgt. Rowdy Parker, who had grown up in Oklahoma shooting anything that moved. “Rowdy was a kid from the hills, and he knew all about that stuff,” says Hall, who moved into his daughter’s Mountain View home in 2004. “I was his boss, but he taught me everything.”
On the first day of a big Allied push, Hall was caught in an artillery burst that left shrapnel in his left elbow, nearly costing him his arm and sending him to a stateside hospital. Months later, a letter arrived from Parker. The day Hall was wounded had been a costly one. “Twelve done for,” Parker noted somberly.
He made no attempt to disguise the anguish he was feeling for his friend. “You don’t know how we miss you,” Parker wrote. Hall felt the same. “That’s the most important letter I got in my life,” he says.
By the time it arrived, however, Parker was already dead — killed in action. Hall didn’t find out until his reply was returned with the word “Deceased” scrawled across the envelope. “I felt like my brother was gone,” he recalls.
Parker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross — the Army’s second highest honor — posthumously. Memorial Day brings all the memories back for Hall — good and bad. “Days like this, you think of it a lot,” he says, “about what a great guy he was.”
– Bruce Newman
Ben Curtis, Rodeo
As a young man, Ben Curtis didn’t have to look far for positive role models.
“I look back into my family and I had three uncles who served around the Korean War,” said Curtis, 65. “So most of my (Memorial Day) remembrances will go toward them. They preceded me and they gave me a lot of encouragement to do what I felt was in my heart.”
Curtis served two combat tours in Vietnam, trying to emulate the family members, now deceased, who inspired him.
“They were really self-assured,” he said. “They had this way about them that I liked. They were decisive in what they were doing. They were men I didn’t mind patterning my life after.”
– Gary Peterson
Source: Contra Costa Times, May 27, 2012, by Gary Peterson