The story of Brandon Deaton’s tour of duty in Iraq is etched in ink.

And in loss.

There’s the bright blue tattoo of his platoon’s insignia on one arm.

On the other: a picture of the soldier’s cross with the words “never forget” above it.

Where Deaton’s left leg used to be, there’s a camouflage-colored prosthesis.

“I think I was 19 when I got blown up,” he said.

Deaton, who grew up in Topsham and enlisted when he was 17, was driving an armored Humvee in Sadr al Yusufiyah on March 24, 2007, when he saw a crater in the road.

“I tried to swerve to miss it, but it was a pressure plate, so as soon as my truck rolled over it, it just completed the circuit and blew up,” he said. “I remember them cutting my boot off and saying they had to put a tourniquet on. They tell us in training that usually you’re going to lose your leg from that point down.”

His leg was eventually amputated just below the knee.

Just a few months before – on Christmas Day – Deaton was the first person to reach his friend, Sgt. Jason Denfrund, when Denfrund was killed in an explosion.

“He saved my life right before,” Deaton said. “He stepped on an IED, he told me to get away and as I was walking away it exploded again. It blew off both his legs and his arm.”

Those are some of the memories that Brandon Deaton will revisit on Memorial Day.

He won’t go to a parade or a picnic. Instead, he’ll call some of his buddies and talk about the things he can’t talk about with anyone else.

“We either isolate ourselves, or we just talk to each other on that day,” Deaton said. “’Cause no one else understands except the people you were with over there, or other veterans.”

Jerold Hambright, a psychologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Togus Medical Center, says that holidays like Memorial Day – as well as the anniversaries of traumatic events – can be tough for some veterans.

“Clearly, if you are a combat vet and you’ve seen people seriously injured and killed, that is going to be a day – especially if you’re struggling with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) – that will be difficult,” Hambright said.

“It’s a very individual thing. Trauma affects people differently.”

 

 

Pam Payeur sees the impact of combat trauma just about every day.

Payeur, who lives in Saco, founded the Wounded Heroes Program of Maine in 2009 to help injured veterans transition to civilian life after her son, Cpl. Mike Payeur, suffered a severe head injury in Iraq. Cpl. Payeur’s best friend was killed in an explosion a week later.

On Memorial Day, when many people gather together, Payeur’s son prefers to be alone. Many of the veterans she helps feel that way.

“They’re not going to be part of a celebration because the day is not about celebrating,” Payeur said. “They figure it’s better to keep to themselves because it’s a reminder of pain they don’t share with just anybody.”

For some veterans, though, it’s just as important to mark the holiday publicly.

Jim Watson plans to stand on the corner of Preble Street and Broadway in South Portland and watch the annual Memorial Day parade, proudly wearing his Pearl Harbor cap.

Watson, who is 95 years old, was 19 when he enlisted in the Navy. He was stationed in Hawaii.

It was paradise. Until the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

Watson had just bought the Sunday paper and was sitting below deck on the USS Phoenix, reading, when he felt the ship start to vibrate.

“And that’s when they screamed on the loudspeaker,” Watson said. “‘Air raid, air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill. Pearl Harbor. Unidentified planes attacking Pearl Harbor. Man your battle stations.’ I never finished that newspaper.”

“We rushed topside and looked (at) all these anti-aircraft bursts in the sky. You’re too busy to be scared. You’re just mad. You’re angry.”

He remembers the sickening sight of welders with blow torches frantically trying to open the bottom of the overturned battleship USS Oklahoma “to get the guys out who were trapped.”

Watson says on Memorial Day he’ll think about the thousands of people who lost their lives that day.

He wishes others would think about them, too.

“In too many ways there’s a lack of patriotism in the United States,” Watson said. “You’ll find the old fellas who were in the service, they have respect for those days. When the flag passes by, they throw a salute.”

In his lifetime, David Blouin has done a lot of saluting. He spent 23 years in the Army, including 18 months in Vietnam. Blouin’s Memorial Day routine is set in stone. He visits the graves of two World War II vets – his dad and his Uncle Gus.

“I tend to their graves and make sure the flags are correct,” Blouin said, “clean things up, spend a little quality time.”

And then he’ll spend some time thinking about a guy named Eddie Kaneshiro.

On March 6, 1967, Kaneshiro was leading Blouin’s platoon on a mission in the jungles of Binh Dinh Province to recover a downed helicopter.

“We saw a movement,” Blouin said. “Turns out we were on top of an underground North Vietnamese battalion headquarters. We were overwhelmed. There was artillery fire coming from every direction.”

Staff Sgt. Eddie Kaneshiro was killed trying to retrieve the body of one of his men.

Memorial Day, Blouin says, is about honoring the remarkable courage and sacrifice of the Eddie Kaneshiros of each generation.

“To all veterans, if you look in their faces, (this day) means something, and it should.”

The day is sacred for Nancy Kelley, too.

Her son, Capt. Christopher Scott Cash, was killed in Iraq in 2004 after serving 18 years in the Army.

There’s a granite bench and a tulip tree planted in Cash’s memory in Veterans Memorial Park in Old Orchard Beach. That’s where Kelley will be as the sun comes up on Memorial Day.

“I sit and I meditate,” she said. “Just me and Chris. It’s just my time to be with him.”

Kelley says she doesn’t mind the cookouts, the parades, the holiday atmosphere of Memorial Day. In fact, she’ll march in the Old Orchard Beach parade representing Maine’s Gold Star mothers.

But she asks one simple thing of the rest of us.

“Have that cookout,” Kelley said. “But say a prayer or have a moment of silence. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds to reflect on what this day is really all about. Think of all of the men and women who aren’t with us today, who died in the service of our nation.”

Just take a minute, she says, to remember the real purpose of Memorial Day.

And send a silent thank-you to those who served – and didn’t come home.