With risk of sounding like a grizzled, tall version of Peanut’s Linus, I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about the meaning of Memorial Day, at least how I see it as a combat veteran. For me, today will always be the one day where I am guaranteed to think about Tommy.
Thomas Martin was a year ahead of me when I got to West Point. We were both “old men” – prior service soldiers far more used to smoking and drinking and girls than grey wool and academic life. As a plebe – a freshman – West Point imposes all sorts of rules on where you can talk, how to walk, where you can point your eyes. They’re supposed to teach 18 year-olds discipline, but Tommy and I were 21. So, when he could, when we’d post at the smoking pit, Tommy would suspend the rules. He’d tell me to “relax.”
Relaxing is not something plebes are supposed to do. But that one little rule break was incredibly valuable, despite putting both of us at risk for punishment.
But Tommy was doing what he thought was right, and that’s the biggest lesson I’ve taken from my time as being a soldier – do what’s right, even it puts you personally at risk.
At the end of my first year, I resigned my USMA appointment, returned to active duty service, and invaded Iraq. By the time Tommy graduated in 2005, I was already back from my war and drinking my way through PTSD.
By late 2006, Tommy and his fiancé were both Lieutenants and themselves deployed to Iraq. They planned to get married sometime after they got back. On Oct 14, 2007, Lt. Thomas Martin was killed in action. He was 26. His fiancé was working medevac that day and learned of his death via the radio.
So, today’s the day I remember Tommy. Our friendship was never the closest but he helped me a lot. Tommy was, is, a great example of a soldier – he led by example and he always tried to do the right thing.
For me, that’s what Memorial Day is all about. Today is supposed to be a sad day. We are supposed to feel the pain of those we lost. We are supposed to see the faces, to see the lost potential. Feel the weight. Get crushed a bit by the guilt. We need those feelings so that the next time we, as a nation, ask your young to go to war, we understand the gravity of what we are asking. We need to remember.
If you are interested, Tommy’s family has setup a foundation that accepts donations. If you’re interested in learning more about Tommy as a person, his old website is still online.