I hope you all had a safe and fun Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day means a lot of things here in the US. If you were to stop people on the street and ask them what Memorial Day makes them think of, you’ll probably hear the following:
- Unofficial start of summer
- Going to the beach (or, as we say here in South Jersey, “Going down the shore”)
- Pools opening
You get the idea. Very few people will say “Remembering the soldiers who died on the battlefield” as their first reply. I know because I asked about 15 people, and only 3 mentioned those men and women who gave their lives defending our freedoms. It’s really sad that one of our most poignant, meaningful holidays has had its meaning so drastically forgotten.
That handsome guy up there is my stepfather, Charles William Sultzbach, Jr. He was a proud member of the United States Marine Corps, and served 3 tours in Vietnam, receiving numerous medals for his service, including the Purple Heart. Sadly, he is no longer with us, having passed away in a car accident in 2008. He did not die in battle, though his years in Vietnam left him with enormous emotional burdens that followed him until the day he died.
My stepfather came into my life when I was about 9 years old, and while I don’t remember much of our first meeting, there are still so many memories I am lucky to have of him. We had an awkward step-parent/child relationship, and sometimes it felt as though he was simply another stranger in my life. You see, all those months, days, hours, spent over in Vietnam affected him to the point that he drank to escape the demons that haunted him. But in 8th grade, when I won an essay contest about drinking and driving, he began a lengthy period of sobriety. I can’t claim credit for that, I believe it was just a matter of timing. I was so proud of him for his sobriety. I still am. It lasted almost a decade. I can’t even begin to imagine what he must have carried in the back of his soul from his time serving in Vietnam. I can’t blame anyone holding that inside who decided that maybe the best way to deal with it was to obliterate it with alcohol.
There were times when it seemed we were always at odds with one another, to the point that I was pretty certain he disliked me intensely. But then I remember that when I was doing a pretty extensive report on the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, the man who had deemed Vietnam to be an off-limits topic, took me aside and said, “Merry, I just want you to know that if you want to ask me anything relating to your report, I will answer any questions you have.” He told me that a lot of soldiers who went over there spent the trip home wondering what they’d been doing there in the first place…to be disparaged by protesters when they got home was the ultimate hurt. We had a lot of good talks, and he told me that while he’d wonder from time to time why they were fighting, he never regretted serving his country. Of course he regretted the things he’d done to stay alive, he’d said. Of course everyone he knew regretted what they had to do to stay alive. “It’s rare to find someone who ships out saying ‘Yeah, let me go commit some atrocities!!”, he’d told me.
When I received my high school diploma, he was there afterwards, nearly crushing me in a big hug. Looking back, I can almost swear there were tears in his eyes. When I tearfully told him of my decision to drop out of college, he sat and listened while trying to encourage me to stick with it. He told me that I shouldn’t have felt the massive amount of shame I felt over failing all my classes (thanks to depression and another issue). He encouraged me to just take all my classes over again. I refused, saying that I couldn’t face telling my grandparents that I had to take all my classes over again. Though honestly? “I had to take my classes again because I failed” would have been so much better than “I failed my classes, so I give up…I quit.” He listened, threw an arm around my shoulders and hugged me, saying that dropping out didn’t make me a bad person, although he felt I was making a mistake.
At church on Sunday, I lit a candle of remembrance for him, and I found myself choking back tears as I spoke briefly about him. I have not dealt all that well with his passing, though I don’t show it. In June of 2008, about six months before he died, we’d had a really good conversation, and in that conversation, he told me how proud he was of me, how good of a mother I was, how much he loved me. He said he couldn’t wait to see KinderGirl, who had been born in March. He said he was going to try to stop drinking again.
He never got to meet KinderGirl. He died on December 6, 2008…less than three weeks before we were to come in to visit. I never thought I would have reacted as powerfully as I did. Sure, I expected the tears and sadness…but I didn’t expect the void of grief that opened up. When I spoke at his memorial service, I had to lock my knees to stay standing, I had to speak slowly to ensure that the lump in my throat didn’t take away my voice. As time passed, I began to feel cheated. We’d just begun to have the father/daughter relationship I’d always wanted to have, and I’d only had it for six short months. I felt cheated.
But as the years have gone by, I have realized that I had it all along…and at first, that hurt worse than feeling cheated, because I hadn’t realized it. I hadn’t appreciated it. I’m at a point now where I’m slowly coming to terms with that, but I still get a little teary if I talk about it. Technically, Memorial Day is for remembering those who fell in battle, and Veteran’s Day is to remember those who served. But thanks to my stepdad, I know that fighting in a war doesn’t just affect a soldier for the time they are there. War has lasting ramifications, and there are many who have died after coming home. My stepdad turned to alcohol to escape a war that scarred him, and he might be alive today, enjoying all his grandchildren.
So yes, people throw parties, cookouts, BBQs on Memorial Day. They go to the beach, they open their pools. But it isn’t about starting your summer nearly a month before the solstice. Though the time spent with friends and family on Memorial Day is nice, it isn’t really about that either. It is about remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans.
I’ll never forget you, Dad…Rest in Peace.