Thoughts About Memorial Day

Posted by Alan Buckelew
President & CEO
May 24, 2011

Alan Buckelew, President and CEO of Princess Cruises.

When I was asked to contribute to the Princess blog last year, I thought long and hard about whether to share my experience returning to Vietnam.  I decided to take a chance and tell my Vietnam story.  I was completely overwhelmed by the responses of those who read my blog, so I have decided to share some additional thoughts as we celebrate Memorial Day 2011 in the U.S.  As a combat veteran, Memorial Day is very special to me.  As we are involved in three different conflicts in the Middle East this year, it’s a day all Americans should hold solemn.  While this is a U.S. holiday, the sacrifices made for freedom have not been confined to national borders.  The responses to my blog and the blog about ANZAC Day remind me that Memorial Day may be a U.S. holiday, but it is also a day of remembrance for all those lost by all nations in the protection of freedom around the world.

Memorial Day is the traditional beginning of summer for most Americans and is a time of picnics and family visits.  While that is certainly true of the holiday weekend, it should not be the case for Memorial Day itself.  We should all take some time to look backward, reflect on our history and remember our country’s traditions and values. We should honor those who gave their lives for the ideals laid out so brilliantly in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

More than a million American service members have died in the wars and conflicts our nation has fought since the first colonial soldiers took up arms in 1775.  These brave soldiers, sailors, fliers and marines died protecting their country and what it stood for. They died defending a way of life that they felt was worth fighting and even dying for.  While many joined the military for Country and Flag, when put into combat those ideals quickly take a back seat to the desire to fight for one’s team.  The bond between combat soldiers is unique, powerful and is the glue that keeps fighting units together.

On Memorial Day we honor our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, not war itself.  We honor not a political ideology, but rather those who have given their lives so others could live and flourish.  As President Kennedy once said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Memorial Day is a day we should honor and remember those men and women who gave their lives in battle.

It is easy to confuse honoring our military dead with honoring war itself, as we tend to glorify our war victories when discussing our fallen warriors.  I hope we have learned not to confuse the warrior with the war.  We made that mistake during the Vietnam War and millions of service people suffered accordingly.  I know it affected me.  In thinking about how to make this point, I am reminded of the inscription on the memorial to Confederate soldiers in Arlington Cemetery, one of the very few monuments to a vanquished army.  While this memorial was built to remember the fallen Confederate soldiers, it easily applies to all who serve in the military.  It says simply:

Not for fame or reward
Not for place or for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple
Obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men suffered all
Sacrificed all
Dared all–and died

It is tempting to become a little melancholy when contemplating all those who have given their “last full measure of devotion,” as President Lincoln so eloquently put it.  But as General Patton said, “Thank God that men and women like these lived, rather than regret that they died.”  So with that advice I suggest we honor our fallen for their sacrifices, but also celebrate their lives.

While my Vietnam unit had a fantastic record of success, never losing a single soldier to enemy action in the year I served, we did however lose one of our team to friendly fire.  I will be thinking of him and his family on Memorial Day.  I am close to his family, particularly his sister, and my thoughts will be with all of his family on this most difficult of days for them.  This Memorial Day weekend will take me to Washington, D.C. as my mother-in-law is laid to rest with her husband in Arlington Cemetery.  While there, my family and I will have the honor of visiting the Vietnam Memorial and observing the Rolling Thunder “Ride to the Wall,” a motorcycle ride to support POW/MIAs.  One of my Fox Force teammates will be riding in that wondrous event and I look forward to seeing him as well as any other of my old teammates who may be in town.  I will be wearing my red scarf to honor my old team.  It is always a moving experience for me to visit the Vietnam Memorial or “the Wall” as it is called.  I suspect it will be doubly moving on Memorial Day weekend, when I view the name of my fallen team member on that somber wall.  While Memorial Day is for those who died in combat, I can’t help but think of all the thousands of service members who were wounded while serving, as in my mind this is their day too.  I am lucky to have escaped any injury while serving in a combat unit, but many were not so fortunate; many are reminded every day of their sacrifice and I think we owe them a special debt, not easily repaid.

For those who have never had the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. and its many memorials, you may have been fortunate enough to see the traveling version of the Wall, a half-scale version called The Wall That Heals.  Well, it will be in Orange, California the weekend of June 17 -19th and I have been asked to speak on the 18thThe Wall That Heals is funded by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which manages the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. as well.

Also in Orange, the group will be collecting photos of the men and women whose names are on the Wall.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is working to gather all 58,272 photos of those with names etched into the memorial to make sure no face is ever forgotten – nearly 19,000 have been collected so far.  If you have a photo, please bring it with you to Orange so you can scan it to be shared on the memorial website’s Virtual Wall and in the future Education Center to be built on the National Mall in D.C.  You can also submit a photo online at www.vvmf.org/faces-never-forgotten.

It is a great honor for me to be associated with this wonderful group that is safeguarding the memories of all those killed in Vietnam. I look forward to this event and invite you to drop by and witness this very moving memorial.

Read Alan’s story about his return to Vietnam, A Soldier Returns …. as a Tourist.