–By Emily Oehler, AW2 Stratcom–
Over the past two years, I have had a unique view into what it means to serve in uniform. While I always respected service men and women: their call to duty, their sacrifice – I didn’t really understand.
That began to change in May 2007 when I walked through the doors of the Army Human Resources Command and began supporting Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center’s (CMAOC) survivors program, Long Term Family Case Management… and then transitioned to AW2, the Army Wounded Warrior Program. These two unique programs provide long-term personal support to Families of the fallen and those severely wounded, injured and ill. Working with them showed me the heart of the Army.
Although I felt like a fish out of water around all the Soldiers, worrying about Army protocol, I was comfortable in CMAOC as my father and brother are both ministers. I grew up talking about loss, funeral arrangements, and memories of loved ones. I was impressed to see all the care and thought put into every aspect of CMAOC. Not that I didn’t think the Army was compassionate, I just didn’t know what to expect. I soon realized so much of my military “knowledge” was based on TV and movies—which I have come to learn take great liberties with interpretation.
While supporting Army Long Term Family Case Management, I heard the stories of the fallen Soldiers and met many of their loved ones. It always meant a lot to me when someone would share memories of their loved one. I always feel that a person stays alive through memories and storytelling. And by listening and talking to them, I was able to better appreciate being a Soldier or the wife, mother, or sister of one.
As this weekend is Memorial Day, these all memories sit heavy with me. Each one represents a life and a loss. Two weeks ago, I heard a new memory… a Vietnam vet with severe burns shared with AW2 staff a memory of his recent trip to visit troops in Iraq; here is a paraphrase of his memory:
While I was there, a medivac helicopter landed with several injured troops. One was a 19 year old Soldier with third degree burns on 100% of his body – so you know who I went to be with. I got to his side, held his hand and whispered the following to him… ‘This is not a hospital, it’s a sanctuary; this is not a gurney, it’s an alter; you are not a Soldier, you’re a sacrifice for freedom. On behalf of the country, thank you.’ He then took his last breath and died in my arms. I prayed next to him, kissed his forehead, and left.
This story brought me to tears—the beauty of compassion, the sadness of war, the pain that Soldier’s loved ones will face for a long time.
For me, this memory and others like them have helped me better understand the burden our Soldiers, their loved ones, and their children carry on behalf of this country. These stories weigh on my heart and continue to be hard to grasp because they are so far out of my reality as a civilian.
Memorial Day for me is now much more than a three day weekend, it’s about real memories of real people who have made a real sacrifice… and the loved ones left behind with bitter sweet memories.