Memorial Day forgotten in peacetime

This Memorial Day the most prominent veteran who will be remembered is Air Force 1st. Lt. Michael Blassie.
Blassie has been missing and presumed dead since his plane went down near An Loc in South Vietnam on May 11, 1972. Officially, Blassie could be anywhere, but Blassie’s family thinks they know exactly where he is. Circumstantial evidence suggests his remains might be in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, where he represents American service men and women killed in the Vietnam War. At Blassie’s family’s request, the soldier’s remains were exhumed last week for advanced forensic testing. If identified as Blassie’s, a 26-year-old-mystery will be solved.
Blassie’s story has come to symbolize the anguish felt by families of soldiers who left home to never return, and it has rekindled the wartime memories of veterans everywhere. News stories about Blassie in recent weeks have detailed the outpouring of support his family has received from veterans’ groups as they struggle, a quarter-century later, with the loss of their loved one. DNA tests, relatives hope, will end the mystery. If the remains are Michael’s, the family can re-inter him in his hometown of St. Louis and experience closure to their memories. Michael’s mother says it’s the least they can do for someone who always did his best. “It’s time to bring Michael home,” Jean Blassie, Michael’s mother, told the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, a living Vietnam vet — he likes his privacy, so we’ll call him Charles — is preparing to join the color guard of Motley, Minn. for another Memorial Day observance.
Charles returned from Vietnam about the same time Michael died. He’s a survivor, and is thus not “remembered” the same way Michael is. He’s part of a ragtag group of veterans who, every year, get up early in the morning, meet in the fire hall, and make the circuit of cemeteries around the Motley area. Their uniforms don’t fit like they did 30 years ago, and their guns need cleaning.
After they’ve finished their last volley, some of them go off to talk about the old times over way too many drinks. Sometimes, some of them have drinks before the last volley. No casualties have been reported.
I don’t care as much about Michael Blassie as I think I should. I’m sure the possibility that their loved one could be identified is wonderful for those who remember Michael and symbolic for people who remember Vietnam, but he’s been dead for 26 years. For me, that’s ancient history. My dad’s a vet, and his dad was a vet, and his dad before him was a vet, but I haven’t lived through any protracted wars, and I don’t know any veterans my own age. Vietnam was a tragedy; it’s also something I’ve experienced only through history books.
Veterans’ groups will remember Michael Blassie among the dead this Memorial Day. Good for them. But to appreciate the Unknown, I guess you had to be there. I’ll honor Charles on Memorial Day.
Today, 25 years after the end of the last protracted U.S. military conflict, an entire generation has grown up without military service as a rite of passage. The last draft in the United States was held in 1974, and the last major U.S. military action, the Gulf War, lasted only seven weeks and was fought by all-volunteer forces.
Veterans are aging, and their prominence in public affairs isn’t what it used to be. The POW-MIA crusade lost steam when diplomatic relations were re-established with Vietnam in 1995. Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle and a host of other powerful politicians are known draft-dodgers, to the ire of veterans organizations. They get elected anyway — military service just isn’t a part of mainstream American culture anymore, and it doesn’t count for much in elections. Calls to remember the sacrifice of those who died for their country were buried with Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. Peace and prosperity makes it a hard sell.
Memorial Day is a perfect example of the growing irrelevance of the military in everyday life. Once a solemn time of remembrance, Memorial Day is now usually thought of as the first day of summer, complete with hot dogs, ball games and sales at discount clothing stores. Michael Blassie might be rolling in his grave, if he has one. But who wants to think about dead soldiers on a sunny day?
Charles does, that’s who. He thinks the day’s important, and he’s doing his best to make sure it’s observed the right way, with full honors in small-town cemeteries. I spent about six Memorial Days riding with him in a station wagon, going out to cemeteries as the color guard’s designated bugler and listening to him talk. Sometimes he talked about his farm. Sometimes he talked about his family. Once he talked about how the police conspired to kill Jimi Hendrix.
Sometimes he talked about why he got up early on the first day of summer to drive to cemeteries all morning. He talked about friends he had made in Vietnam: some with whom he’d kept in touch, others with whom he’d lost touch, and a few he’d just lost, in the war and after. He talked about coming back from the war and not finding a job, and about walking into a New York bar in uniform in 1972 and being called a murderer.
When he had come back from Vietnam, he told me, he never thought he’d be in things like veterans organizations or color guards. To him, Vietnam was a waste of time. But over the years he saw the ranks of veterans depleting, and somebody had to take over to keep the memories of his friends alive. He was the survivor. He’s been in the color guard for 20 years because somebody had to do it. And he was the one who was still around.
We’re lucky the number of veterans are declining — wars are good things to avoid. I’m certainly not upset I never had to follow in my father’s, grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s footsteps. But I don’t think I’m just going to have a barbecue or go shopping at Dayton’s on Memorial Day. I can’t relate to what Michael Blassie’s family has gone through, and I don’t know anyone who died in a war. But I know people who do, and I respect what they’ve been through. I am more able to understand guys like Charles, who kept on living and who want to remember the people they knew. I’ll remember the war dead because he would like me to.
Yeah, I wasn’t there. But it’s the best I can do.

Alan Bjerga’s column appears in the Daily on Wednesdays. He can be contacted at [email protected]