I have not always been in a wheelchair. Despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) over 12 years ago, I only lost the complete ability to walk a few years ago. That diagnosis actually came while I was on active duty in the Air Force. I went through ROTC in college on a full scholarship, and I went on active duty as a second lieutenant in 1997. I then went through training to become a Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (kind of like the FBI of the Air Force), and after my diagnosis in January 2005, I was medically retired six months later.
During my eight years of active duty, I was very fortunate to not have deployed to the Middle East. Ironically, I was supposed to deploy to Kirkuk in Iraq three weeks after my honeymoon in 2004. However, my MRIs started showing lesions on my spine a few months earlier, and I was put on medical profile – essentially canceling my deployment. I tell people to this day that having MS may have saved my life. I did, however, have the opportunity to deploy briefly for a humanitarian mission in Paraguay and travel to Panama and Japan for work-related assignments. I was also extremely fortunate to not have lost anyone close to me in combat. I cannot extend that statement to people in my tight-knit career field, or to other close military friends who lost loved ones.
Back in 2002 while I was on active duty, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. I spent time in Normandy on the D-Day beaches and the museum in Caen, as well as at the USS Arizona Memorial (fully accessible) and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Both were incredibly emotional experiences for me, and I’m tearing up as I write this from just the memories of the experiences. These are trips I recommend to every active duty service member and veteran, but if you’re on the mainland US, you don’t have to travel that far to pay your respects. I lived in the DC area for two years, and I have spent time at Arlington National Cemetery, the Korean War Memorial, and the Vietnam War Memorial.
You should know I made all these visits prior to my diagnosis, and thus while I was still active, athletic, and walking. It pleases me to no extent that the majority of these places are wheelchair accessible. Now as a full-time wheelchair user, I look at returning wounded warriors so differently than I did before, and wonder if that might have been me had I stayed on active duty. AFOSI has lost many agents in the field in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and even though I didn’t know them personally, I knew some of them by reputation. It still hurts. I can’t imagine the pain of my friends who have lost close colleagues, or family members who have lost sons, daughters, siblings, fathers, and mothers.
It seems like there is more bickering every year on social media over Memorial Day, which I just can’t fathom. There are people (usually veterans) explaining to others that wishing someone a “happy” Memorial Day is inappropriate because it’s a day of remembrance for the dead, and Veterans’ Day is the occasion for thanking and celebrating. Personally, I’m just happy to see any level of gratitude for our military and service members in our current environment, so I don’t point out the difference anymore. Which brings me to the comments from people on social media who use Memorial Day posts as an opportunity to decry our government’s supposed apathy towards the loss of innocent lives, the use of drones, bombs, etc. All of it is just noise that obscures the shining memories of the real reason for the holiday – our men and women in uniform who died in the service of the United States.
As I travel the world, I see dozens of military memorials and cemeteries in many countries. Our reverence and respect for our deceased service members is not limited to America alone, and it’s an amazing thing to be afforded that perspective – especially when those memorials may be dedicated to people serving at the time in forces fighting our own. So on this Memorial Day, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to serve, I remember with much emotion those who have died in the service of our great nation, and I continue to take every opportunity to remember them in every part of the world where they have made the ultimate sacrifice.