LETTER: Grieve with families on Memorial Day, too

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An ad placed in the Courier-Journal a week before Memorial Day in 1999 read, “Family (daughter) of Cpl. Charles A. Smith 3rd BAT. 1st Marines, Kilo Co., killed in Vietnam 2-28-68. Have photo. Want to give to family,” and listed a phone number Chris Giordano.
Cpl. Charles Smith is my brother. He was killed on Feb. 29, 1968 ... six days after his 20th birthday. Chris Giordano is an extension of our family now. He had served in Vietnam with Charlie. He was wounded, losing his left arm in January 1968.
In 2000, I visited Chris and his family. He also put other Marines from Kilo Co., 2nd Platoon in touch with me. In 2001, my son Aaron, a Marine sergeant, was one of the first to go to Afghanistan in the war against terrorism. When he returned, the following year, I went to Camp LeJeune to welcome him home. Chris also came with us, accompanied by Sgt. Major Haywood Riley. Charlie was a squad leader and he had been his sergeant at that time.
A few months later, I was invited to attend a Kilo Co. reunion in North Carolina. Sgt. Major Riley introduced me to Dennis Daum from Yankton, South Dakota.
I always had questions regarding my brother’s death ... the brutality of it. I didn’t know whether to blame our military involvement or the people who had actually killed him. I wondered what his last thoughts were. Was he alone? Did he suffer?
Sgt. Major Riley said Dennis would be able to answer those questions.
He had watched Charlie die on the field that day. Dennis was shot six times as he tried to reach Charlie, who lay only 15 yards away. He spent two years in the hospital recovering from his injuries.
I spend every Memorial weekend with the men from Kilo 3/1 2nd Platoon and their families. I know the sacrifices these men made are great. They lost arms, legs, eyes and many gave the supreme sacrifice and lost their lives. Watching their camaraderie, spending time with their families, I am even more aware of all the life Charlie missed — that our family missed. But I have never felt my brother’s presence more strongly than I do Memorial Day when I am surrounded by the Marines who served with him.
I believe great suffering drives us to find release and comfort through connecting with others who have experienced what we are going through. I lost my brother in that war, but they lost many brothers. I know they are crazed by a similar grief to mine. I have listened to their stories, they’ve answered my questions and brought solace to my grief.
 We have celebrated Mother’s Day and Derby this month. Memorial Day is now hard upon us and hard on us as well. While most celebrate the holiday as the first long weekend of summer, the rest of us are honoring the sacrifice of countless American lives. We are a nation at war this year just as we have been since the attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
I ask you, who do you think knows the true cost of war? The veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq surely know the cost of war. The cost of that knowledge was borne even more by the widows, children, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters of those who gave their lives in our country’s wars.
I know what it’s like to have a casualty notification officer come to your home bearing news that shatters lives. When Charlie was killed, a curtain of silence descended in our home. To talk about him would set off my mother’s grief full force. I still remember  his photo, along with his obituary, announcing our personal tragedy to the world.
This Memorial Day, think of our fallen service men and women, but also think of the ones they left behind. Families filled with grief and pain. Reach out to them. Thank them for their family’s great sacrifice. Tell them you grieve with them. Tell them they are not alone.

Gaynell Zirnheld
Mount Eden