What my grandfather found in photo of war dead

I came across an old photo the other day, something my grandfather had held onto -- a gruesome image of a pile of bur...

Posted: May 29, 2018 11:19 AM
Updated: May 29, 2018 11:19 AM

I came across an old photo the other day, something my grandfather had held onto -- a gruesome image of a pile of burned corpses. It appears to have been taken somewhere in France during World War I.

It's not clear to me whether the corpses are soldiers or civilians, American or French. I can't tell by looking at it who burned them or why. And I have no idea how my grandfather came by the image, or why he kept it all those years.

Pop had been a sailor aboard the battleship Utah during the war. Utah was one of several Navy ships tasked in 1918 with escorting US troop convoys as they approached the British Isles. She operated out of Bantry Bay, Ireland.

Pop never spoke much about the war, at least not voluntarily. But then, he never much spoke about anything. Quiet man. And sober -- literally and figuratively. He never took a drop.

The only war memory Pop ever shared with me was the sight of pulling into an Irish port and seeing row upon row of dead laid out upon the pier, ready for the return voyage home. Some, he said, had been so recently killed they weren't even in caskets.

Pop was about 18 at the time, a kid himself. He joined the Navy in 1915, lying about his age to escape a tough situation at home.

He felt fortunate. Though German attacks on the convoys were a constant threat, Pop knew life at sea -- though not without risk -- was better than the life of a foot soldier in the trenches. I never heard him express anything but reverence for the grunts.

Maybe that's why he kept the photo. Maybe it served as a reminder of the ugly toll war demands of a country, of a people and of the troops who have to fight it. Pop died a long time ago, so I never got to ask him. I'm going to choose to believe he never wanted to forget those doughboys on the pier or how lucky he had been or what sort of life he wanted to live when his time in the service was up.

For Pop, it seemed to me, every day was a kind of Memorial Day.

We will do and say all the right things this weekend. We'll fly the flag. We'll say a prayer. We'll salute the troops.

We will feel proud and sorrowful at the same time. We will hug our little ones a little tighter, and we'll think about all those Gold Star families out there -- wives without husbands, husbands without wives, children without moms or dads and moms and dads without their children.

Maybe we'll decide to get active in a veterans, wounded warrior or family support organization. I hope so. And maybe some of us will shed a tear for them, those for whom life will never be the same.

But then, for the most part, our lives will go back to being the same.

And, for the most part, that's just fine. That's what those brave men and women were fighting for.

I believe, because I had the privilege of knowing a couple of them before our enemies snuffed out their lives, that those who have fallen in our defense would not want us to mourn forever their loss. I think they would want us to live, and to do so happily.

What a precious gift. Which is why it's so important that, in accepting it, we remember them and their families, and the opportunities they gave us to be just a little bit better than we were yesterday.

Jaimie Leonard was that kind of person. Gregarious, grateful and fun-loving. Always putting others first.

We had worked together on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon. I treasured her friendship.

An altercation broke out between Afghan soldiers who Jaimie was mentoring in 2013. One of them grabbed a gun and started shooting. Jaimie went down and never got back up.

She was posthumously promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, which made her the most senior female Army officer to be killed in the war -- a war still raging.

Jaimie knew a thing or two about sacrifice. She'd lost friends to the fight. She saw firsthand the effect that loss had on their families. She once penned a compelling Memorial Day piece in her hometown newspaper, The Warwick Advertiser, in which she detailed the struggles of the surviving wife of one such friend killed in Iraq.

"I think a piece of her also died that day," Jaimie said of the widow. "[But] as I've gained more perspective, I've also regarded other concepts such as citizenship in a different light."

She ended her piece with a charge to us all: "Take measure of what you have done for your country, and ask yourself if you could do more."

I carry a picture of Jaimie with me these days, and look at it often. I love that big, toothy, girl-next-door smile of hers.

My photograph is certainly easier to look at than the one my grandfather kept. But it has exactly the same effect on me. It reminds me of the ugly toll war demands, particularly from our soldiers and their families. It reminds me how lucky I am to have known someone like Jaimie and to live in this great country. And it reminds me to take measure of what I've done for that country, and whether I could do more.

It helps make every day a kind of Memorial Day.

Picture that.

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