Memorial Day: Why do we observe? Ask a veteran

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- If you want to know why our nation observes Memorial Day, ask a veteran.

I visited the Colorado Springs Veterans of Foreign Wars post May 23. The Lt. Marion L. Willis VFW Post, or Post 101, is “the oldest and friendliest VFW in town,” retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Jose Vazquez, the bartender, tells me with an easy smile.

He knows it’s the only VFW post in town, but that doesn’t make his boast any less true. He and the others working in the bar are all volunteers, and they offer warm welcomes to anyone in a military uniform who walks through their door.

The VFW actively supports local veterans, raising money for the Crawford House in Colorado Springs and taking care of active-duty veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have a lot of young people come in,” he says. “We babysit ‘em—we cook for ‘em and make sure they’re taken care of.”

Over a soda and potato chips, we chatted about the goings-on at the post: a birthday bash Friday (May 26) at 6 p.m.—“You are welcome to come down,” Sergeant Vazquez says enthusiastically. “We’re going to have barbecue, hamburgers and hot dogs. Military people and their families are always welcome here.”

A group of motorcyclists, the VFW Warriors, had recently returned from a ride to the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“We always go, every year,” he said. “We go in memory of all the folks who didn’t make it back. We like to go there to remember friends who didn’t make it back—you don’t just forget them.”

Sergeant Vazquez is a 25-year veteran and Airborne Ranger. He served two tours in Vietnam, one from 1966 to 1967 and one from 1968 to 1969. The Army medically evacuated him during his second tour after he took shrapnel near his spine from a mortar round.

He considers himself fortunate to have made it back. Twenty-seven names of the 58,000 on the Wall are friends of his who did not. He says softly as he leans on the bar that it’s not something he likes to discuss—after four decades, it still hurts to think about the brothers in arms who couldn’t come home with him.

“We go to the Wall, we leave flowers, and we pray for them,” he says as he wipes the corner of his eye. Gradually, the easy smile returns to his expression. A moment later, he says, “I’m a sentimental guy. I served 25 years, and every unit I left, it felt like I was leaving family behind.”

I nodded in agreement with Sergeant Vazquez. I remembered sentiments that commanders here have shared before moving to other assignments or deploying.

“The military is like a family—they both go through their pain and suffering and their joy,” he said, and I nodded. The military is a family—one where you meet new brothers and sisters every few years.

That’s why we observe Memorial Day: the one day set aside for us to remember all the military family members who are no longer with us.