Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Memorial Day...Remembering the Fallen

I had the pleasure of meeting a group of Marines recently who were taking classes where I work. They were sent here from all over the globe to learn how to become better chefs. One from a Marine base in Japan, one from Hawaii, the Pentagon, Texas and other bases.

My grandfather was a cook in the Army in WWII. Because of his cooking experience prior to the war, he was assigned to be a cook at Fort Dix Army Training Center in New Jersey. He was frustrated to be "only a cook" and not a fighting soldier, but as the war went on, he realized that his meals might be the last bit of home-cooking that soldiers ate before going off to battle, or ever.

He took his responsibilities seriously and made the best meals he could with what he had. If he needed better ingredients, he'd find a way to get them. Soldiers would ask for his "special" bread pudding or roast potatoes. I cooked with him at religious retreats for West Point cadets and his food was prepared with the same love and attention and received with equal parts of love and thankfulness.

I remember one retreat, we, the cooking volunteers, were hungry in the kitchen after preparing and serving the meals but we wouldn't eat until the cadets had had enough. If they wanted seconds, he encouraged us to give them our portions - with love. It was a lesson he drilled into me - cooking a meal for someone is sharing part of you with them...it's a labor of love.

These Marines had similar attitudes about preparing meals for their fellow soldiers. They spent five weeks with us and learned, we hope, a great deal. We did, too but not about cooking.

I learned these Marines know how to follow a recipe. It was harder to teach them to break the rules of the recipe and make it their own, but they did eventually. I learned they are serious about studying and learning but they like to have fun, too. They want to live while they're alive - a simple concept perhaps, but something that takes on different meaning when you're a soldier.

They are brothers and fathers and husbands and sons. One was a daughter and she had a beautiful smile, although she said that Marines don't smile for photos. I caught her smiling for a moment and got one anyway, but that smile was just too wonderful...Marine or not.

I learned about where they came from and, perhaps more important, where they've been. These were Marines ages 19-40. Some had been to Iraq already. Some had been a few times. They shared video and photos from Iraq. Some lighter moments, but most were not.

Today, I saw similar photos in the NY Times. A very moving article (by Damien Cave with a photographic series by Michael Kamber) of a group of soldiers who had just been injured by a hidden off-road bomb. They were searching for the three soldiers who were kidnapped last week and were themselves injured during the search. One fatality, three others injured. The photographer and reporter were with the troop at the time of the explosion and were able to describe and document the scene in great detail.

The one fatality, the one dead soldier in this troop, on this day had a name. His name was Sgt. Justin D. Wisniewski. He was 22 years old.

If you Google his name, it comes up about 360 times. If you asked ten people on the street who he is, chances are no one will know who he is.

If you ask ten people on the street who the newest American Idol is, chances are many will know. Google an American Idol finalist and you'll find over 2 million listings.

This bothers me. It bothers me more now, I suppose, because for the past five weeks, I have put names to faces of soldiers. Of Marines. Marines who have fought and lived through this war. Marines who have yet to go over to Iraq. Marines who will likely return there again for their second or third tours. Marines who I hope will all make it back. I didn't know any soldiers personally before these five weeks. None of my friends are soldiers. No one from work is. No one in my family is. Now I know a few and I will remember their names and their faces and their smiles.

In Sgt. Wisniewski's hometown in Standish, Michigan, people will likely know his name. They would likely want you to know and remember his name. He is their American Idol. A photo of him in uniform was posted at his high school on Monday. He was remembered there with a moment of silence.

There are 3,452 names from this Iraq War that need remembering. A list of their names and photos is here.

I'll remember one here today.

Sgt. Justin D. Wisniewski.

Related stories:

"I Will Always Be Your Soldier" by Ryan J. Stanton, Bay City Times

In the Times on Sunday entitled "Coming Home" about Iraq War Veterans' lives after the war.

"An Invisible War" by NY Times Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert, May 3, 2007


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