WINDHAM — As another Memorial Day passes, I wonder how many Americans truly understand the gravity of this holiday. How many of you take a moment to understand why we celebrate this day, or what the real cost for this holiday was?

Oh yeah, we hang our flags, and we put some flowers on the Tomb of the Unknowns, but we don’t dwell on the true meaning of this day, or it might spoil the mood of our first summer barbecue or our first trip to the beach.

We know why we celebrate this holiday – we just don’t want to hear the gory details. Happy Memorial Day? I don’t think so! Ask a mother who lost a son or daughter; or one of those old veterans who survived combat and marches every year in parades, who watched their comrades, their friends, die on a battlefield.

They can tell you what this day is about, if you really want to know. It is all about this nightmare we call “war” and all of the kids who paid the ultimate price for it.

Before they were soldiers, they were kids. Kids who had never had a legal beer in a bar; kids who had never known true love; kids who had never voted; kids from small farm towns or inner cities; kids who had never traveled more than a few miles from their homes; kids who never fulfilled their dreams or reached their potential; kids who died scared and alone in some hellhole that no one even remembers today.

Try for a moment to put yourself in their place. You are in a landing craft headed for Normandy Beach, and you are watching as your comrades are being mowed down like grass by machine gun fire, wondering if you are next. You are petrified.

You are being attacked by an enemy you can’t see, in a bunker on a mountainside, in the jungles of Vietnam. You’ve never seen battle before. You’ve never been away from home before. You’ve never even been in a street fight. And you know that any minute you will probably die. How do you feel?

Now remember: You are 18 years old, away from home; your family and friends are thousands of miles away; guys are being killed all around you. How do you feel?

You don’t know, you can’t know, unless you were there, unless you actually experienced this horror. When the casualties come home, our Veterans Affairs hospitals bear the task of caring for them, the forgotten – kids who will live out the rest of their lives in anonymity, in a wheelchair or dismembered to a point where they will never know the normal everyday activity of taking a shower or making a sandwich. But not to worry, we’ll hang out our flags in tribute to them.

This isn’t some John Wayne movie. This is real-life pain. And yet, because it is so far from home, we tend to trivialize it. As long as it doesn’t affect our plans for vacation, the weekend beach party or the family cookout, we can deal with it. As long as it isn’t our sons or daughters over there.

We like to use the sentence, “They died for their country.” It makes us feel better. It somehow softens the reality of kids coming home in bags, but in recent cases, that just isn’t accurate.

Vietnam was never a threat to us, just like Iraq was never a threat to us. These kids died “in service to their country” and deserve all of the accolades and honor we’ve bestowed on World War I and World War II veterans.

But when kids die because of careless decisions made by incompetent politicians or egocentric military leaders, I take offense at that. I get damn mad, as should you. It is time for us to tell our leaders that if they think it’s a just cause, it is their children who should lead the way to the front lines. Let’s see how quickly they jump into war then.

My heart goes out to all of the mothers, fathers, sweethearts, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands of these great kids who gave their all. Thank you! I share your pain on this Memorial Day. “Old soldiers never die” – young ones do.

— Special to the Press Herald