Honoring their fallen comrades is a uniquely powerful experience for America’s military veterans.
Tricia Martinez has been actively serving in the U.S. Army for the past 21 years. While she was between Middle East deployments in 2003, her cousin, Jesse, deployed to Iraq. Eight months later, Jesse was killed in a vehicle accident while saving a fellow soldier’s life.
Martinez had become particularly close to her cousin as he prepared to deploy, offering him wisdom and support, and the loss hit hard. That day is still burned into her memories: “I can tell you what the weather was like, I can tell you the exact time the phone rang, I can tell you everything about what it was like when I got the phone call.”
In Jesse’s memory, Martinez now has not one but two tattoos. A large one on her calf displays the battlefield cross along with Jesse’s name and date of death, and a smaller one around her wrist repeats his name and date. The smaller one serves as a permanent KIA bracelet, just in case she doesn’t have a chance to put on the physical bracelet she wears most days, which she feels naked without.
Are you grieving the loss of a loved one who served in the military? Join our Loss of a Veteran grief support group.
All Americans mourn loved ones we’ve lost — and millions of civilians grieve for fallen military service members. But for veterans themselves, the experience of remembering and honoring their fallen comrades is something different.
The friendships formed while serving our country are unique, born in close quarters and forged in dangerous situations. Service members have to be able to trust each other with their lives; a military buddy truly has your back in a way civilians might not be able to fully understand.
When one of those friends dies — whether in combat or not — the loss hurts in a unique way, too. So it demands special kinds of grieving.
Most Americans will recognize the slow, mournful, bittersweet trumpet melody known as “Taps.” It’s a powerfully sad tune that can pull on anyone’s heartstrings. For veterans, that power is even greater.
“Taps” is played ceremonially at military funerals, as well as at dusk to mark the end of the day. At those funerals, the music often accompanies the presentation of a flag to the deceased’s loved ones. And when military units gather for reunions, those who can no longer be there remembered with the reading of their names along with “Taps” playing in their memory.
As U.S. Marines veteran Patrick Keane tells us, the tune can “reduce a man to crying jelly… If you hear ‘Taps,’ and you’re in the military, you just stop. You stop whatever you’re doing. I’ve pulled over on the road. ‘Taps,’ man, whoa. That’s some heavy stuff.”
Not all honors are so formal. Keane recalls a Marine he served with in Operation Desert Storm, Dickie, who died of cancer in the years afterward. Some of the vets who’d been closest to Dickie while they were deployed now get together for a weekend each year to live it up in memory of their friend, having riverside bonfires and offering a few toasts in tribute.
Keane wasn’t personally close to that particular social circle, he says, so he’s not one of the memorial campers. And yet, though he humbly downplays it, he eventually reveals that he and his wife keep Dickie’s surviving daughter in their thoughts every Christmas and back-to-school season, when they send her gift cards.
“I don’t know if she’s using them or not,” he says “In fact, I don’t even know if she’s still at the address we have.” He keeps sending the gift cards anyway, hoping they’re reaching his fellow Marine’s daughter, not looking for a thank-you. Acknowledgment of the deed isn’t the point. It’s just the sort of thing veterans do, every day, to honor the memories of those who always had their backs.
Keane also goes out of his way to honor the loss of service members he didn’t know personally. When the body of a soldier who has died is being transported home to the area where he lives, he’ll be among the informal squadron of veterans who show up at the airport to salute the coffin. And as the body is driven to the funeral home, he’s up there on the highway overpass alongside veterans, police officers and firefighters, waving a flag as a fellow veteran takes his last ride below.
Anthony Flood, who’s on active duty with the Army National Guard, says he, too, finds himself gravitating toward parades to honor his friends, as well as all veterans who have died. He’s a faithful attendee of the annual Veterans Day parade in his city; it’s not his style to march in it, but he’s always in the crowd.
Flood also remembers fallen friends with a Memorial Day ritual he performs with fellow veterans at the CrossFit gym where he trains. Once a year, they do the punishing “Murph workout” that’s named after a Navy veteran who was killed in action — 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats, bookended by one-mile runs before and after and ideally performed in 20-pound body armor — in memory of those who have fallen.
Denny Meyer is a veteran of both the Navy and the Army Reserves. He now serves as the public affairs officer of American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER), in which capacity he attends the funerals of LGBT veterans as frequently as possible. He and his colleagues also honor fallen veterans with articles on their website and by displaying their photos.
“When we march in parades,” he says, “we decorate our car with the photographs of two gay World War II veterans… so we are a moving memorial.”
Lynn Rolf, the director of programs for the national Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), served as a commander in the military police in Iraq. Six soldiers under his command were killed in Iraq, and the anniversaries of their deaths are a time when he commemorates them. But it’s not just those few days that matter. Rolf always has those men on his mind as he works in a job where he helps veterans daily.
“Part of my life now is totally, 100 percent dedicated to not only keeping their memories alive, but trying to earn their sacrifice,” he says. “I know my guys are looking down on me, and when I help another veteran, I know they’re pretty proud.”
Tricia Martinez carries her cousin with her every day, but there are special days when she remembers him, too. Her family observes Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and Jesse’s picture is prominently displayed in her annual altar to lost loved ones. At the National Infantry Museum in Fort Benning, Georgia, where she’s stationed, she’s added a paver with Jesse’s name to the memorial walk, and she visits it for his birthday and the anniversary of his death, as well as on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
And while she was deployed in Tal Afar, where Jesse was killed, Tricia was able to participate in a 5k memorial walk in honor of the 25 service members who have been killed there.
Her entire troop ran the route with her, making it clear that they did it in specific memory of her cousin. “This is for Jesse,” they told her.