I'm early for Monday, but I'll be out on the road then.
I used to be like most Americans who looked forward to Memorial Day as a 3 day weekend that kicked off summer. Even after I joined the National Guard in 1992, it was a day to show up at the armory for a quick Memorial Day service, and then back home for a few beers.
But on October 21st, 2000 I found out what it is about.
My unit was on weekend drill at Fort McCoy, doing our twice yearly rifle qualification. Most army soldiers are familiar with this, a long boring day of waiting in line for your 2 minutes to shoot at computer controlled pop-up targets. My company was running the range that day for the other companies in the battalion. Then an E-4 specialist, I was given the cushy job of sitting in an air conditioned control tower and giving directions over the PA system. All day long, group after group of soldiers came up to the firing line to shoot.
After a short dinner break, it was time to repeat the process, this time at night. Night qualification in the Guard is a familiarization exercise at best. The shooters move off the large berm firing line halfway to the closest target, which is now 25 meters away. You fire all tracer rounds, which would be unlikely in actual combat, and the pop up target is conveniently lit up with a green chem light. The target comes up, you shoot it, it goes down. It comes back up in the exact same spot, you shoot it, and it goes down. Repeat this routine 18 more times and you are done. A simple thing, and mostly we Guardsmen hate it because it cuts into our beer drinking time back at the barracks.
But on this night, it wasn't simple or routine.
We had been at it for about an hour and a half, and were hoping to be done in another hour, then clean up the range and go get some sleep. But the monotonous sound of M-16 fire was interrupted by the desperate scream that no one in the army ever wants to hear.
We were confused at first in the tower, thinking maybe someone had tripped and twisted an ankle, or been bitten by a snake. I went to the window to see what was going on. Someone on the ground yelled up to me that they needed a medivac right away. I grabbed the radio handset and called Range Control, which functions as the operations center on a small army base. I said I needed immediate medevac. They asked back if I meant air or ground medevac.
Dumb question in retrospect, no one screams for a ground medevac, they just do it.
Nonetheless I went back to the window and repeated the question to the guy that yelled up to me. He yelled back with a burst of profanity, mixed in with the words 'chopper right now'.
I relayed that to range control. One of the other guys in the tower was struck with common sense, and turned on the range flood lights. We looked down the line to see a lot of people standing around in confusion, and ominously, about 20 people in a tight circle all the way down on the left side of the range.
A few minutes later, a soldier rushed to the tower with info. A soldier had been shot in the neck. The medics were yelling for more IV fluids.
The next 20 or 30 minutes passed in a blur. Men on the ground kept demanding information that we didn't have. The guy on the radio kept asking for information that we didn't have. Finally, we saw the blinking lights of the airlift helicopter. I was relieved that it was finally here, and that the injured soldier would now be flown away to a hospital where they can save anyone. Just like on TV. But the chopper landed, and we heard the whine of the engine die away. We waited for it to load up and fly off, but it was almost a half hour on the ground. It finally started up again and flew to the hospital, leaving us to try to make sense of what had happened.
Witnesses were interviewed, statements were taken, and a group at a time buses took everyone back to the barracks. I was one of the last, and almost got left behind. The next morning, which was actually only a few hours later, we got up and got dressed in silence. Every soldier had to call home that morning, to give the bad news, followed by the good news. The bad news is that a soldier was shot last night, honey. The good news is that it wasn't me.
Later that morning we were given more bad news. The soldier was being kept alive on life support in the hospital. Kept alive so that the organ donor teams could get there.
PFC Michael David was on the firing line acting as a safety for the soldiers firing. He was shot in the neck from behind, by a new recruit who had mistakenly thought it was his turn to fire. I never did hear the final outcome of whether or not anyone was to blame, or whether it was ruled an accident. But the army lost 2 soldiers that night. David, and the new recruit who had to live with having accidentally killed him.
Time has passed, and my memory has no doubt blurred. But I can still hear word for word everything that was said on the radio that night. I can still hear the soldier swearing at me from the ground to get a chopper right away.
Every Memorial Day since then, except when I have been deployed, I have taken my children to visit David's grave. They are too young to understand yet, but when I am home from Iraq I will keep taking them to visit his grave on Memorial Day, so that they understand what I never did growing up.
What Memorial day is about.