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After Memorial Day 2013

Updated: 05/28/2013 @ 2:29pm

I was having a conversation the other day with a guy who works with Native American veterans. He told me that the reason his people put on war paint was because they knew that to be successful in battle, they needed to become different people than who they actually were, and that after the fighting was over, the Dakota and Lakota held a ceremony called nagiwichopi, which means to call back the spirit.  

I may not have his story exactly right, but I do believe I have the gist of it. It made me think of a quote from George Orwell that always resonates with me this time of year: “People sleep soundly in their beds because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

I haven’t been able to get the image out of my head - warriors carefully painting their faces, preparing themselves to do and endure things that would make anyone’s soul shrink in dismay, and after the battle to wipe the paint off their faces and undergo a ceremony that allowed them to recapture who they really were.

This week I sat in the school gymnasium during our town’s Memorial Day celebration, listening as the adjutant read one by one the names of all the deceased veterans from our community. I’m old enough now that most of the names are familiar to me, and many are people I’ve known and liked.

Very few of them were “rough men.”  

But if you know their stories, if you know what they went through, if you know what they endured and what they had to become, that knowledge gives George Orwell’s thoughts real weight and makes plausible the need for a ceremony to call back the spirit.

Now, not every veteran has suffered hardships and endured torment.  I’ve had a number of them tell me they look back on their service fondly, remembering their time in uniform as the best times of their lives.

But not all of them.  

However, we do owe every single one of them our thanks and gratitude, because even if their time in service was relatively easy, they spent countless hours being told what to do, in places they wouldn’t have chosen to visit, doing tasks they wouldn’t have wanted to do. And there were those who didn’t come back, and even more who never made it all the way back.  

For now, our troops are out of Iraq and headed for the door in Afghanistan. There’s plenty of room for serious people to debate where we should have gone and how long we should have stayed, but all that discussion needs to be set aside for the moment of honoring those who have paid, and to figure out what we can do to heal their wounds, knowing full well that some will never heal.

I don’t pretend to have the words for how to go about that work, and that’s fine, because around 150 years ago, someone did have the words. In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, he said, “ . . . with malice towards none, with charity towards all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan . . .”

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