Today’s post actually has two parts to it. The first is a story my mom wrote about the time she learned her father had died. The second is a speech my grandmother gave at my uncle’s church yesterday. It is similar to one she gave at her home church in 2010. And she has given me permission to share it with you today. Please enjoy them both. My hope is that by sharing these stories you understand a little more about the meaning behind Memorial Day for those affected by it.
For those who don’t know, Memorial Day is for those who served in the military and gave their lives – Veteran’s Day is for those who previously served in the military but are still alive – Armed Forces Day is to recognize those who are actively serving in the military. For me personally, there are four men (pictured below) who would celebrate these days – my grandfathers Charles and Roy (both you will learn a bit more about today), both who are now deceased, my father who served in the Air Force until the 90s, and my brother who is actively serving in the Army.
Today, let’s not just enjoy a day off and have a party. Let’s also remember the families who have lost a loved one from defending our country.
The Jeep at My House
by Crystal Dawn Mann
May 22, 1969 was a central California spring day filled with beauty–blue sky, warm sun, singing birds, blooming flowers, playing children. The Vietnam War was in full swing. To three of the children in the neighborhood, this meant Daddy had been gone a long time, and this was a time to play war, like Daddy was. The weapons were squirt guns, spray bottles, and the seeds of the four o’clock flowers, which resembled miniature hand grenades. The neighbor’s yard was the war zone today as 6-10 children ran through it shooting each other with their squirt guns and spray bottles, and throwing their miniature grenades at each other. Guns and grenades only scored near misses; they never actually killed anyone.
In the midst of this, a jeep drove down the street. As the children watched, it came to a stop across the street from where they played, right in front of our house. In the jeep were two “army men” dressed in their nice green uniforms. The children watched as the “army men” walked up to the house; my two younger brothers and I thinking it was Daddy with a friend of his. We watched, and then continued playing war. A little later we watched as the two men came out of the house, got back into the jeep, and drove away. We decided that Daddy had just left to take his friend home or to a motel, and would soon be back home with us. The fact that it was still 2 months before his scheduled arrival home never entered our minds.
As the jeep drove away, one of my cousins came out of the house and told my brothers and I that my mom wanted us to come into the house. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the house and saw my mom on her knees in front of the console stereo, crying. After all, moms don’t cry, right? When I saw my mom crying, I knew my world had just fallen apart, even though I did not know why she was crying.
My brothers and I went over to our mom. She told us that our Daddy had died in the Vietnam War.
I remember that spring day in central California–people crying, heavy hearts, a deep sense of loss.
Memorial Day 2016
by Mary Bernnice Sampley
I hadn’t gotten the kids up for school yet when the door bell rang. There was a man at the door I hadn’t seen before but he was holding something in his hand. He confirmed my name. He then handed me a yellow envelope and asked me if I was home alone and I answered that my kids were with me. He asked if I minded if he waited with me while I read what was inside and I assured him it was okay.
Inside was what looked like a “cut and paste” letter and it said, in part, “I am sorry to inform you that your husband, SFC Charles A. Jones, has been seriously injured in the chest, abdomen, and all extremities. There is grave cause for concern.” Little did I know when I heard that door bell ring, that it would change the entire course of four lives.
A number of telegrams followed the first one. My pastor came over and prayed with me. Many people were praying that he would recover from his injuries.
A few days later, with several of my family with me in the living room , an olive-drab car pulled up in front of my house. Two uniformed men walked to the door and I invited them in. I asked them to have a seat because I knew why they were there. They wouldn’t sit with us because they were on official business. I tried to put them at ease but that wasn’t going to happen. They proceeded to give me official notice that my husband had died from his injuries. I was sitting on the arm of the couch and put my head in my hands and some tears came. My dad came over and put his hand on my shoulder and I sat up and didn’t shed another tear for several weeks. No one was going to think I was weak and couldn’t handle things. I had been alone too many times in our nine years of marriage to give in to a few tears.
Shortly before the first telegram arrived, I received a record that I had played several times. On it was a song that became my theme song. It’s entitled “I Will Not Forget Thee”.
“Sweet is the promise I will not forget thee,
Nothing can molest or turn my soul away;
E’en though the night be dark within the valley,
Just beyond is shining an eternal day.
Trusting the promise I will not forget thee,
Onward I will go with songs of joy and love,
Though earth despise me,
Though my friends forsake me,
I shall be remembered in my home above.
When at the golden portals I am standing,
All my tribulations, all my sorrows past;
How sweet to hear the blessed proclamation,
Enter, faithful servant, welcome home at last.
I will not forget thee or leave thee,
In My hands I’ll hold thee,
In My arms I’ll fold thee,
I will not forget thee or leave thee;
I am thy Redeemer, I will care for thee.
I would kneel in front of the stereo many times a day and play “my” song.
It was upsetting to learn that by the time I received the first telegram, he had already been dead a few days. I wondered at the futility of prayer. Why did we bother when it was already too late?
I met Chuck in Hawaii on R&R about 3 weeks before his death. It was a special time for us and it was difficult to say “good-bye” again. A part of me walked on to that airplane with him.
Chuck was an advisor with the Advisory Team 75 in My Tho, Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta. he loved the job he was doing and he loved the Vietnamese people he worked with. He said if the kids and I had been there, it would have been his best duty station.
He went out with his troops one morning and just after leaving the hovering helicopter and running across the rice paddy, the VC (Viet Cong) detonated the land mind that cost him his life.
I later learned how extensive his injuries were but there is no need to detail them here. I wish I hadn’t investigated to get more information.
I had a lot of questions after he died. I asked God why He couldn’t have protected him. He could have prevented that mine from going off. God, why couldn’t you heal him? God, why, why, why? Then I would feel guilty because “you’re not supposed to question God!” I told my pastor how I was feeling and he told me it’s okay to question God. He said he believed questioning is a type of worship because we are reaching out to God, not turning away from Him.
I also felt guilty because I didn’t cry. I had a relative who had tried to get into her husband’s casket, and cried up a storm. I thought something was wrong with me because I didn’t behave that way. My pastor, in his wisdom, said “Generally, people who react that way are reacting out of guilt.” That calmed my inner voice that was telling me there was something wrong with me.
A few years later, I learned something else. God is not obligated to change the laws of nature for me. He could have prevented the mine from going off. He could have arranged for someone else to be at that place at that time. He could have caused the mine to malfunction, but a chain of events had already been put into motion and God was not obligated to change those things. God tells us that if we confess our sins, He will forgive them. I believe that God’s only obligation to me is to forgive my sins when I ask Him. The other things He does for me are extras.
Chuck died May 22, 1969, during a week of heavy casualties. Life magazine published several pages entitled “The Faces of The American Dead in Vietnam” on June 27, 1969. It showed the pictures of 242 men who were killed in that particular week and Chuck’s picture is in that article. (the cover and Chuck’s photo is pictured below)
His funeral was on June 6, 1969, the day before my oldest son’s 6th birthday. Crystal was 7, Terry was 5 and Stuart was 4. They didn’t understand why Daddy wasn’t coming home. No more wrestling, playing, going to the park, going to church. A future without a dad. It was hard enough for me to fathom a future without him; for them, it had to be extremely confusing. I was a widow at 27. I didn’t know what a widow was supposed to be or do or even how to explain everything to my kids. Widows were old ladies in the 60s and 70s, not someone in their 20s.
When Chuck died, the Pastor told the church that these three kids would need some men to step up and be a part of their lives. There were good intentions, but that never happened. My sister and brother-in-law lived in the same town and he did a lot for us and we spent all of our holidays with them. My other family were all scattered across several states and couldn’t be there and none of the other men made time to be a father-figure to them. The Bible tells us that God will be the husband to the widow and the father to the fatherless but we needed someone with skin on, too. I believe they still have problems that are associated with not having a father.
As most of you know, my kids stepdad passed away a year ago. Roy and I were sitting in the Oncology waiting room to be called for his appointment. The TV was tuned to the channel with all the judge shows. I think Divorce Court was on. I don’t understand how you can watch something like that and know what’s going on and have an internal dialogue and keep both of them straight, but that happened to me that day.
The Gaither’s wrote a song several years ago titled “It Is Finished”. I’ve always equated this song with the spiritual battle. The war between Satan and Jesus was finished and we, along with Jesus, were victors. But that day, this song said something different to me.
These verses, especially, spoke to me:
“Yet in my heart the battle was still raging,
Not all prisoners of war have come home;
There were battlefields of my own making,
I didn’t know that the war had been won.
Oh but then I heard that the King of the Ages,
Had fought all life’s battles for me;
And that victory was mine for the claiming,
And now praise His name I am free.
It is finished! The battle is over,
It is finished! There’ll be no more war;
It is finished! The end of the conflict,
It is finished! And Jesus is Lord.”
That day, it was as though Chuck was saying to me, ‘The war is over and has been for a long time. Let it be over. I’m no longer in a hospital bed in Saigon. I’m not in a box in the cemetery in Modesto, California. Let me be in the now. Don’t keep me back there in your mind because I’m not there. I, who grew up with nothing, have a mansion. I’m running and laughing. I’m still singing loud but now I’m on key and I’m talking with all the people we knew. My body is whole now. Don’t keep me in the past because I’m not there.’ You see, many times when I thought of Chuck, I thought of the funeral, the cemetery, the accident. There were things I talked about and remembered but my initial thought would be his death. I forgot that his real life didn’t end that day in Vietnam. He went on to a more complete life and he is living in the present, not the past. That day, watching Divorce Court, another part of my healing took place.
I gave this talk at my home church for Memorial Day. While I was reading through it, making a few changes, I realized I was doing with Roy the same thing I had been doing with Chuck. I thought about all the illnesses, all the ambulance calls, all the hospital visits. When we have a loved one who has been ill for a while before they die, our thoughts tend to drift back to those last days. We are thinking of and feeling things that happened back then. Allow your loved one to leave that place and in your mind let them live in the present and know that they are experiencing wonderful things TODAY. And I now accept that Roy, too, is experiencing freedom he has never experienced before.
Memorial Day. Day to remember those who fought and died for their country. Day to remember fathers, sons, husbands, daughters and mothers who gave the ultimate gift. Day to remember broken and grieving families.
But through the empty days and sleepless nights, God still says,
“I will not forget thee or leave thee.
In My hands I’ll hold thee,
In My arms I’ll fold thee.
I will not forget thee or leave thee.
I am thy Redeemer, I will care for thee.”
And to my kids I would say, “I’m so sorry you had to know your Daddy through others’ memories but I want you to know he loved you more than life itself.”