Ron Kaye: Honoring those who didn't make it home

One of my earliest memories dates to my fourth birthday, when it seemed like the whole world was celebrating with me.

The whole world was indeed celebrating, but it had nothing to do with me. It was May 7, 1945, the day the Germans unconditionally surrendered, the day before victory in Europe became official. From the Soviet Union to America, vast throngs of people took to the streets to rejoice in that moment of triumph.

Three months later, the Japanese surrendered, setting off more celebrations. Soon, my two uncles came home from war and like all the other GIs, they were treated as conquering heroes.

In 1947, the Cold War began and America has been at war virtually non-stop ever since: in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Lebanon, the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Libya, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Sudan, Kosovo and now the War on Terror that has engulfed Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and parts of Africa.

War, rumors of war, the scars of war — so many missions accomplished, but without the great victories that ignite public passions. Not one of these wars has seen the men and women who returned home from war, or those who didn't, honored by a massive outpouring of emotion and public gratitude for the sacrifices they made.

That's what Memorial Day is supposed to be about, how it came to be after the Civil War, growing out of the emotional parades and community events in small-town America, both North and South.

There's still some parades like the one in Canoga Park every year, and services at McCambridge Park War Memorial in Burbank, the Vietnam War Memorial in Montrose, the Veterans Memorial in Glendale and elsewhere in the area and around the country on Monday.

But we all know the holiday is about the start of summer fun, about barbecues and beer, fiestas and fairs, the Greek Festival, the Jazz and Reggae Festival, the Wine Fest and Wet Pool Party in downtown Los Angeles.

It's time to party, perhaps at best with a passing moment or two to think about all those who died doing their duty for their country and those who fought and came home with wounds of their bodies and psyches, what used to be called “shell shock,” or now, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Nothing can heal those scars as much as the glory of great victory in combat, something that has eluded us for so long as we played policeman to the world in costly and drawn-out wars in Korea and Vietnam, or with the end in sight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the most part, we have tuned out. It is all so remote, so far from our consciousness. The odd returning veteran who goes berserk gets far more visibility than all the hundreds of thousands of men and women who put themselves in harm's way and find few cheers when they come home — not even a job, in so many cases.

There are no hurrahs when Johnny or Joan come marching home.

I did my time during the Vietnam War, spending two long freezing winters in the far north of Alaska, so I only know about combat from those who will talk about what it was like to have faced the enemy and fought for their lives and the lives of their comrades.

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8310 on West Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank one afternoon last week, I chatted with a couple of guys who are the survivors of the fighting in Vietnam, men who found no heroes' welcome after that unpopular and politicized war.

One would just have soon not talk about being in the heart of the fighting so long ago. The other recalled being wounded in a firefight with North Vietnamese soldiers, who stood passively within shooting range as two of his comrades in arms carried him to safety.

He's visited Vietnam — loves the people and the countryside, and plans to go back for a longer stay one of these days.

He found healing by going back to where he had been wounded and seeing that the past is gone.

Maybe in the fog of the peace and prosperity most of us enjoy — that so many of us take for granted — we should take a moment to honor those who fought in the name and service of our country so that those who did not come home did not die in vain.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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