Violence and Memorial Day

Part of Veterans For Peace Arlington West Iraq and Afghanistan Memorial on the beach in Santa Barbara, CA. Taken April 2009. Copyright MTMcPhearson

On Memorial Day 2022, I am weighed down by death. Death and violence are at the core of the holiday. It is the day to honor military service members who died in our nation’s wars and Veterans who died after returning home. But this Memorial Day, with so many violent deaths and death reminders around me, the holiday is complex. Two years ago, George Floyd was murdered on May 25th. I will probably forget the exact date, but I will never forget it happened on Memorial Day. The last three weeks have seen mass shootings in Buffalo, NY, with ten dead and three injured, Laguna Woods, CA, with one dead and five wounded; Chicago, IL, with two dead and eight wounded; and the horror of Uvalde, TX with nineteen children and three adults murdered. I can no longer compartmentalize one type of violence from another. The pain from war violence is the same as the agony caused by gun violence and police brutality. I know because I’ve seen the pain.

Once Memorial Day was simple. Unofficially marking the first day of summer, I celebrated like most people having fun at BBQs and taking advantage of sales while also giving obligatory “Thank you for your service” to those in the nation’s Armed Forces and Veterans. I knew in theory that the purpose of the holiday was to honor service members who died in the nation’s wars, but I did not understand what that meant.

Memorial to unarmed 19 yr. old Michael Brown Jr. killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. Taken 8/16/2014 Copyright MTMcPhearson

My close contact with families who lost loved ones to gun violence and police aggression opened my eyes to the pain caused by violence. Lives turned upside down, vacant chairs at the Thanksgiving table, and unfillable holes in hearts. This emptiness is especially true for parents. We make sense of death by accepting the cycle of life and death seen in our families. Babies are born, they grow up, their parents turn old, the now-adult children have babies, the now-grandparents die, and the circle continues. Parents are not supposed to see their children die. It defies the process and breaks us.

Carlos Arrendondo constructed a traveling memorial for his son Lance Corporal Alexander S. Arredondo, killed in Iraq on Aug 25th, 2004.

Even though I witnessed parents struggle with losing their children to gun and police violence, I still rationalized the brutality of war as somehow different and more acceptable than violence at home. Clarity began in 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. First, I met military families with loved ones deployed and Gold Star Families who lost a family member serving in the U.S. military. In 2003 I traveled to Iraq to observe the U.S. occupation firsthand and met Iraqis with family members who U.S. troops had killed. I observed how their pain and the pain of the Gold Star families were the same. The depth of loss for both was nearly unbearable. I met service members who returned home, but their buddies died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I watched tough Marines kneeling at the foot of memorials, sobbing with inconsolable grief as they mourned their lost comrades.

U.S. forces mistakenly killed this Iraq family’s youngest son. The photo taken in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad, on 12/3/2001. Copyright MTMcPhearson

My son’s deployment to Iraq was an extremely emotional time. I lived in perpetual fear that I would personally know the grief I witnessed others endure. Sometimes, I would break out in tears when I thought of him. The news that a soldier died in Iraq filled me with dread. Joy overcame me when I learned that it was not my son, followed immediately by guilt because I knew someone had lost their child.

Meeting Palestinians and Jews who lost loved ones in the Israel/Palestine conflict cemented my certainty about the senselessness of killing. The depth and intensity of their pain were no different. The reasons for it were as unnecessary as all I had already seen.

When most people think of gun violence in the United States, we think of mass shootings, drive-byes, police killings, and murder. However, the deaths caused by the beforementioned are dwarfed by the number of suicides. In 2020, according to Pew Research, 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries; 54% were suicide (24,292). This information is essential to know as it relates to Memorial Day. The 2021 Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) stated that in 2019, 17.2 Veterans died by suicide a day and that the adjusted suicide rate for Veterans was 52.3% greater than for non-Veterans.

How did my comrades die? The report went on to say, “Firearms accounted for 70.2% of male Veteran suicides in 2019 (up from 69.6% in 2018) and 49.8% of female Veteran suicides in 2019 (up from 41.1% in 2018).”

Part of Veterans For Peace Arlington West Iraq and Afghanistan Memorial on the beach in Santa Barbara, CA. Each red cross represents ten lost American soldiers, while each white one stands for one. Taken April 2009. Copyright MTMcPhearson

As a Veteran, I am heartbroken that so many of my comrades in arms feel such deep pain that life is not worth living. I am outraged that after we Veterans sacrifice our mental health for this nation, our country’s gun obsession and selfish disregard for the harm they cause stand in the way of cultural change to protect Veterans and, most notably, our children.

This Memorial Day, our nation is overwhelmed by death. It looms as a monstrous shadow cast by over a million lives lost to COVID. It seeks to smother us with violence driven by alienation and deep-seated hate. But we cannot let death win.

What are the answers? In the short term, we must do what it takes to control access to guns from people who clearly should not have them and address the nation’s mental health crisis, but the solution that will solve the problem is cultural change.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a revolution in values.

“I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”

Washington DC, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Copyright MTMcPhearson

Please do not take his words as a simple call to defeat the giant triplets as he names them. They are a prescription to save us from our worst demons. They appeal to us to step into the role of our higher selves.

We must stand against violence by standing up for life. We must change our culture from one that celebrates violence to one that loathes using it. We must confront the suicide epidemic with acceptance and love. We must break the deep isolation felt by millions. We must see and accept each other.

Look around us and witness the carnage. It will not stop unless we stop it. As a Veteran on Memorial Day, I ask you to join me in becoming more human.

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Social and Political Commentator, Human Rights, Peace, and Movement for Black Lives Activist, U.S. Army CPT Veteran

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Michael T McPhearson

Michael T McPhearson

Social and Political Commentator, Human Rights, Peace, and Movement for Black Lives Activist, U.S. Army CPT Veteran

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