When I was a young lad of elementary school age, I would sometimes find my way into my parent’s bedroom and ramble in their closet. I would find my father’s Class A uniform coat and put it on and stare at myself in the mirror. I remember it was Khaki, a Class A uniform color in use back in the 50’s and 60’s. The right shoulder sleeve was adorned with the bright blue, white and red patch of the 11th Airborne Division. My father had been a soldier in World War II and also was in the Georgia National Guard in the 50’s. I would stand up straight and salute myself in the mirror, struggling to keep the oversized coat from swallowing my little arms.
As I practiced my close order drill, my eyes would drift around the bedroom and I would find a picture kept on my parent’s dresser. It was a picture of a man. It was not a picture of my father. The man in the picture looked a lot like my older brother Pat. Next to the picture in another frame was an award. My inquisitive eyes would try to read the big words……”The Silver Star awarded posthumously to”………. I would try to finish reading it and then I would eventually finish my drill then go and play.
As I grew older, I would eventually ask my mother who the man was in the picture. In her most loving way, she sat me down and told me that the man was my older brother’s father. She told me that he was a soldier and that he had been killed in a war. I had wondered why my brothers were so much older than me and they had a different last name. I began to understand now why the picture was there and what it meant to my family and what it meant to me.
This reality would further touch me on a Memorial Day long ago. We got in our car and drove to the National Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia. As we drove through the cemetery, I looked out over the hundreds of headstones that stood over the rolling hills. Our car finally came to rest and we all got out. My mother had an arrangement of flowers that she had purchased from one of the flower shops in town. We walked up the hill and came to find the headstone of her late husband. We placed the flowers and said a prayer. We made our way back home that afternoon and we shared hot dogs and hamburgers at a family barbeque.
Years later, I would reflect on my family, a family with brothers who have different last names. I would think about the thousands of other families who had brothers and sisters with different last names, all with the common thread of ultimate sacrifice, the final devotion of service to a country and a way of life.
The victims of war are not only the soldier, the sailor, the airman or the marine; they are also the widows, the sons, the daughters, the mother’s and the father’s. They are the families that must pick up the pieces and move forward with their lives after the loss of a loved one from war. My mother was not yet 30 years old when she faced this reality, along with three young sons whose father would not be coming home.
I am led to believe that the people who originated the Memorial Day remembrances right after the Civil War, did so not only to remember the fallen, but also to aid their own grieving and healing process. A war where hundreds of thousands lost their lives seems unfathomable to us today, but was all too real for our ancestors.
We must dutifully remind ourselves that this is not just another three day weekend to open up the summer, but a solemn remembrance of those who have given their lives in war. I will always be reminded by a memory, a memory of a picture on my parent’s dresser.
In Memory of 1st Lieutenant Carl L. Kelly, Infantry, Killed in Action in Korea, 1951.
Awarded the Silver Star