They are all similar – old, cracked and sometimes faded; the newer ones in washed out color. There is a commonality to them that may not be readily apparent. They are photos of young American men and women in uniform.
Sometimes they are serious, sometimes smiling. One can sense a feeling of pride beneath the surface images –a calling to be part of something bigger. I have seen them in Civil War, WWI, WII, Korean, and Vietnam era uniforms. I have one of me before I went off to fly in the Vietnam War. It shows me on the wing of an F4 proudly smiling. I think of it today as the photo that would have been used if I had been shot down. I wonder if these folks felt the same way. My photo is a stark reminder of the seriousness of all these images, no matter how old they are.
Did the men in their formal Civil War dress understand what lay ahead, did they in WWII, Korea, Vietnam or overseas today. I venture to say no. Entry into combat is an exercise in denial. One never exercises the slightest thought that they won’t come back. They will do their time and return home. Yet as we remember them and what they did, we know that this is not true.
These were young Americans who went off to war for a variety of reasons: love of country, adventure, the need to escape from their home, a feeling to be part of a larger cause such as saving the Union, and much more. They arrived in the service still naive, but that didn’t last long. The realities of service and war intruded quickly and they suddenly understood the seriousness of it all.
At home their folks looked at these snaps and thought about them, hoping that they were well. For many they remained the only link to the loved one; they became icons displayed in a special place in the rooms of those left behind. Of those who came back, they changed in many ways: some had PTSD a great many, some were injured seriously, some in Vietnam had Agent Orange exposure, the ways that they were wounded in body and soul are too numerous to mention. Some didn’t return. The photos now linked to large granite or limestone markers; names carved on a wall or war memorial. Names now visible to many but whose stories are known to only a few.
The photos remained and the years went on, Americans forever frozen in time. Forever young and proud, forever anticipating a future that never came. Those who mourned them now gone; but they living on forever in a moment so long ago.
These are the folks we honor each year on Memorial Day, but really need to think about them every day.