Memorial Day can stir deep emotions in veterans

Yit Mun Lee , a Northeast Iraq veteran, on parades: "They're not for me. I'm going to the beach." DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Yit Mun Lee , a Northeast Iraq veteran, on parades: "They're not for me. I'm going to the beach." DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 29, 2012

For the typical American, the annual Memorial Day parade serves as a stirring display of pomp and patriotism, a diverting prelude to the shopping or barbecues to follow.

But for many veterans, the uniforms, flapping flags, and ceremonial rifle shots can be triggers summoning harsh memories of battle and loss.

In smart formation, marching down Main Street alongside the drum majors and old soldiers, are ghost battalions of warriors who never came home, visible only to veterans who cannot forget.

"Memorial Day is pretty potent in a lot of directions," said Rona Fields, a Washington psychologist who has treated hundreds of veterans and Holocaust victims for trauma. "There's a lot going on even in a simple parade that triggers traumatic recollections."

Not every veteran reacts the same way, of course. As it happens, Yit Mun Lee, 27, of Northeast Philadelphia, won't be attending any parades Monday.

"They're not for me," said Lee, a former Army specialist who was stationed in Iraq north of Baghdad in 2004. "I'm going to the beach."

Lee joined the Pennsylvania National Guard to make some money for college, then soon found himself patrolling hostile roads in a humvee that was hit numerous times by improvised explosive devices.

Escaping injury, Lee is now a Drexel University senior studying information technology. On Monday, he won't be thinking about war. At least, he'll be trying not to.

"My prayers go to families of the ones who passed away," Lee said. "And I pray for people doing now what I did. It's a scary job. I feel civilians can't understand it."

Having been deployed "gives you great respect for those who served before you," he added.

In a nation of preoccupied citizens often accused of forgetting its soldiers in harm's way, Memorial Day is an intense reminder that hostilities are ongoing.

For veterans, it's even more powerful, a holiday that "releases bubbles of old pain and old memory," said Carl Mumpower, a psychologist and Vietnam War veteran from Asheville, N.C. "And it's a reminder that war isn't a game."

Veteran Sam Console understands that in his bones. Console, 45, of Landenberg, Chester County, was a first lieutenant with the Army National Guard in Tikrit, Iraq.

Wounded in an IED blast in 2004, Console endured traumatic brain injury and hearing loss. These days, the father of three, who works for a Chadds Ford engineering firm, experiences post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, and nightmares. He also suffers from hypervigilance, which compels him to scan crowds for terrorists.

For Console, the holiday is rough psychic territory.

"Memorial Day brings everything to the forefront," he said. "I have a close friend in Afghanistan, and on Memorial Day, it is a time for me to pray for him."

The day also reminds Console that he's happier in uniform than in civilian life, he said. He has tried several times to reenlist, but the Army prevents it because of his brain trauma.

That makes life difficult. "To be a man at home, I struggle every day," Console said. "I'm not as affectionate to my wife, I'm disconnected, and it's hard for me to express myself emotionally. Civilian life is disappointing."

Things become even more complex on Memorial Day, when Console's 19-year-old son, Mark, participates in holiday festivities. Mark, who has not served in the military, is a Civil War reenactor who marches in parades with a 19th-century musket.

"When I see my flesh and blood marching in formation, it evokes a deep emotional feeling about the risk he could face if he were in the military," Console said. "Then, in the same parade, you see amputees and others just back from overseas," which elicits a fresh set of strong reactions, Console said.

But it gets worse.

"My son and others then fire their muskets, and that's a bad emotion that I feel," he added, saying the combination of the loud noise and the roiling fear for his son can be overwhelming.

And, Console added, "the firing and explosion remind me of the destruction I saw."

Things are less dramatic for Vince Caliguire, 39, of Brigantine, N.J. In 2004, he served in Ramadi in central Iraq, where he was a lieutenant with the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Now a sales manager for a casino-supply company based in Las Vegas, Caliguire survived his tour of duty unhurt.

For him, Memorial Day imparts many positive feelings, including a sense of gratification.

"I think about my two kids and my stepson on Memorial Day, and feel fortunate that I came back from war, even though I was in the thick of it," Caliguire said.

"I appreciate everything in my life that much more."

But something else invariably creeps in along with the warmth. Caliguire calls it survivor's guilt, an existential angst that claws at him. Why does he get to see school plays, watch the Super Bowl, enjoy good meals, while his fallen comrades cannot?

"You get more success, the good things happen, but the people you lost are in your mind, and the survivor's guilt builds up as the years go on," he said.

To pay homage to those who died, and perhaps to assuage the guilt, Caliguire helped plan a Memorial Day ceremony in a Brigantine park Monday.

"I don't dwell on the war and have tried to move on," Caliguire said. "But Memorial Day is a solemn day.

"And it's a little emotional for me."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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