Let Us Never Forget: A Memorial Day Reflection

Posted by Karl "KJ" Johnson on May 26, 2017

We will never forget. It’s a maxim in the armed forces that we do not forget our fallen.

I’ll never forget July 22, 2010: The day the AH-1W Super Cobra (manned by my roommate and his co-pilot, call sign “Dealer 54”), was felled by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). They were flying a combat mission in support of the US Marines under fire from insurgents. This was a routine mission in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Insurgents attacked daily and we regularly directed close air support to protect our ground forces, usually without incident. But as I stood in the combat operations center that day — as I did every day to ensure each mission was on track — I was stunned by a flurry of reports that Dealer 54 was down. Insurgents had fired multiple RPGs and one of them struck Dealer 54, causing the main rotor to separate from the aircraft and resulting in a catastrophic loss of our friends.

Sadly, this story is not uncommon, nor is it limited to combat zones, as the recent tragedies in Manchester and Jakarta confirm. But unlike most stories that temporarily shock us before we move on to the next bit of news or scroll to the next post in our social media feed, I had to face the permanence of this one. Nothing was more sobering — or more final — than seeing his empty bunk as I turned in that night, knowing I would pack his belongings the next day. I have had too many friends who never made it back to their families, but in my twenty years of active duty service, this was different. And this was the second time that year I had to pack the belongings of a dead man. Five months earlier and just weeks prior to my deployment to Afghanistan, my father unexpectedly passed away. He was a retired Marine infantryman who served multiple tours in Vietnam where he’d received two Purple Hearts. He, too, left far too many friends behind and suffered too many “invisible wounds.” In each case, I had to face the reality of death in concrete ways that I’d previously managed to avoid.

Death is a daily reality, but we anesthetize ourselves to its pain. Often it’s not till we’re shocked out of our complacency that we see it for what it is: horrible, terrible, permanent. A tragic shooting, a terrorist bombing, or even the death of a beloved celebrity; each has a way of temporarily penetrating the veneer of comfort behind which we hide, reminding us that death lurks around the corner for each of us and awaits those we love. When we experience the loss of those closest to us, we feel the sharp pangs of death. The anguish of losing loved ones is inconsolable, and often no explanation of pain and suffering will suffice in the moment. We simply hurt. I’m reminded of this each Memorial Day when I recall my roommate and other lost comrades. I will never forget them.

It’s tempting to lose hope on such days, when we take inventory of our loss. But let us also take comfort during such times in the fact that we are not a people without hope. I, for one, find comfort in the fact that death is not permanent because King Jesus has defeated it and that it has been destroyed (Isa. 25:8; Heb. 2:14-15; Rev. 20:14). Hope springs eternal for those of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ, and we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). So while Memorial Day is a solemn day for me, I’m also reminded of the hope we have in the Resurrection and that one day, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

Let us never forget.

 

Karl “KJ” Johnson retired from the United States Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel after twenty years of active duty service. He is RZIM’s Operations Director, US Speaking Team.