The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” fly over parts of Colorado saluting healthcare workers, first responders, military members and other essential personnel working on the front lines to combat the coronavirus. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Cory W. Bush)
It may not be surprising if this year Memorial Day passes many of us by. Traditionally a time of summer celebrations and laying floral wreaths in solemn remembrance, a holiday during the pandemic is just another Monday to endure, constrained by social distancing and aggravated by our nation’s collective anxiety and grief. Very soon, the number of American lives lost from COVID-19 will likely surpass 100,000, and nearly one in four Americans have already registered for unemployment since the crisis emerged. Many Americans, families, and businesses are simply in survival mode, and the grim truth is that not all of us will survive the journey.
As a second-generation Air Force Veteran, Memorial Day has always held a meaning deeper for me than just the beginning of summer. For decades, our nation paused on the last Monday in May to remember the uniformed men and women who have died protecting our country. This year I will be remembering my friend, Major Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, who died flying an F-16 in 2018. Those who knew Cajun continue to feel his loss profoundly; but along with the memories of the loved ones we’ve lost to war, and the tens of thousands of Americans who have been taken by COVID-19, his memory is a reminder that we are still living. And with that gift, we have the chance to do something worthy of their sacrifice. To get up every day. To give where and when we can. To put in the effort at home, at work, and in the communities where we live. To build toward a new future. We may be in survival mode, but there can be dignity in survival.
Last year, I spent my final Memorial Day as an Air Force officer honoring our fallen compatriots at the Air Force Academy. My fellow Airmen and I completed the “Murph” workout in remembrance of Lt Michael Murphy, a US Navy SEAL lost in 2005 during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan. Our sweat and physical discomfort symbolized our thanks for his sacrifice, along with the countless other sacrifices made since this day was first formally observed in 1868. As a service member, it was a humble, yet fitting way to mark the occasion.
Memorial Day 2020, by comparison, was supposed to be one of many firsts on my new adventure as a civilian and Veteran. I began this year energized by unbridled hope, having joined an organization to do meaningful work. Fortunately, my company is equipped to weather the storm of COVID-19, but like most Americans, I now struggle to make sense of the impact COVID-19 has had on us all. Acutely aware of the risk to human life and uncertain what tomorrow will bring, this new reality feels reminiscent of war. In this version, however, we lack the fundamental feeling of purpose that gives meaning to hardship, as well as a shared experience with compatriots, because I, like many Americans, am fighting this battle largely alone.
This year, military service members are not the only heroes who wear a uniform. Flight suits and combat fatigues are now joined by lab coats and scrubs. While Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines continue to lay down their lives to protect our country from external threats around the world, doctors, nurses, first-responders, transit workers, grocery workers, and others have been fighting tirelessly to save us from a threat that knows no borders. At home and abroad, many of these heroes have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
So what does this mean for Monday? This year we will not hear the jubilant summer kick-off party, enjoy the long weekend by the beach, or attend the community parade to which we are accustomed. For me, the holiday will simply be a socially-distanced backyard barbecue with two or three friends, remembering Cajun and the others who have fallen. Because of their sacrifice we are able to live. So this Memorial Day I am hopeful, and I will encourage others to find some joy and gratitude in being six feet apart, but together. While we patiently hope for a return to abundance, let us be worthy, not just on Memorial Day, of this gift of life we have been given.