Years ago, I was involved with a construction project on the fifth floor of an office building. We were in the paint phase of the project when an office worker from the floor below complained about the smell of the paint. We had to stop the project and put workers on overtime to complete it during the Memorial Day weekend when no one was around. Even though it presented no danger and the paint was water based, her right to breath air with no smell superceded our need to finish the space on time and within budget. Although I respected it, this woman's request seemed a little frivilous to many because there was no eminent danger. Still it was adhered to and I spent the holiday weekend enduring the complaints of construction workers, who were barking statements like, "Good thing she wasn't in the army, she couldn't have even handled the latrine!"
This event had a great impact on me. At the time, I was fighting for the rights of non-smokers and smoke-free environments. It was a short time later that I used the incident as an argument to legislators when trying to pass laws for casino workers in Atlantic City. "Why are we making sure office environments are safe from emisions like paint fumes, but others have to deal with Class A carcinogens from cigarettes? What makes one person's life more valuable than another?" The argument worked to put question marks in the heads of some decision makers, but the dent it left on me was far deeper.
Every Memorial Day weekend, I remember those painter's gripes. Even though this day is about honoring those who have died while under the employment of our Country, I think about how they lived, the conditions they endured, how they felt about being there, and if they had regrets. I wonder how the position of soldier even exists! Who wakes up in the morning and decides, "I think I will give up all the comforts of my life today for the sake of others"? How do we enlist soldiers to serve our Country in ways we as civilians can't even imagine and would never tolerate! While that woman complained of paint fumes, an army sargeant was somewhere in the world breathing in exhausts, emissions and carcinogens that probably can't even be measured on an EPA scale. At the same, time a computer specialist is on disability for an achy back and is asking for a better chair from his employer, which he has the right to do, but a soldier off from guard duty is sleeping on sand and gravel with his helmet as a pillow.
No one would argue that a secretary needs a headset for her phone so her neck won't get strained, but we allow a marine to wrench his shoulder walking ten miles in the desert with 50 pounds of gear in the hot sun. And sometimes it isn't even about the conditions we are in. How many of us can remember fretting about how to ask our boss for a personal day, but do we realize that at the same time, a young soldier is praying to be able to see his family again and asking God, "For one more day, can you keep me alive?"
It all makes you wonder, should we be offering more than just gratitude on Memorial Day? What is the best way to honor those we have lost or may be losing? Is it to just raise a flag and say a prayer, or should we be making a commitment to make ourselves a little uncomfortable and do something, anything, to show them what their lives and deaths have meant to us?
I am thinking, Memorial Day should be about doing, not just reflecting. It should be about the future, not just the past, and it should be ongoing, not just for today. I am going to stick some uncooked rice in my shoes this week, and each time I take a step, I will remember what comforts someone else has or is giving up for me. I am going to try and love and honor every one I come in contact with, because in doing so, I am loving and honoring the memory of every one of the tens of thousands who have died. After all, our Country's freedom means nothing if we don't have forgiveness, love, civility and peace amongst ourselves.
When a soldier loses his or her life, in that single moment when they know it is their time to go, I wonder if they ask themselves, "will this all be for nothing?" Sadly, that is a sentiment I can't change. But when they look down on me to check in every once in a while, I want them to see an American who is trying to live up to the precedent they have set. I want them to be as proud of me as I am of them. I will admit, I am not brave enough to do their job, but the least I can do is let them know, they did not die in vain.