A white background bordered with blue and red stars, with a title reading Memorial Day: For Us The Living by Clayton Callahan

Memorial Day:  For Us The Living

by Clayton Callahan, WashCo Dems Communications Committee Member

Happy Memorial Day, everybody. Now, what does that even mean?

After all, we live at a time when military service is an increasingly rare phenomenon. My mother, born in 1939, had two husbands in her lifetime, one a veteran of the Marine Corps, the other a former Navy man. When I asked her why did she have a thing for servicemen, she replied, “Kid, in my age group, they’re all servicemen.” And, although not literally true, I’m sure it seemed that way to her. However nowadays, with the draft a thing of the past and mass mobilization gone the way of the dodo, it’s a lot more uncommon to meet someone who’s served, as opposed to the other way around.

Now, when I graduated high school in the way-back year of 1987, I was part of the three percent of my classmates who’d chosen to enlist—and that was during the Reagan years when Top Gun and Rambo made service look oh-so-cool. So that gives the average person you meet a less than five percent chance of being a veteran. Also, since the post-cold war base closures of the 1990s, fewer and fewer Americans live in or near military towns. In fact, as of now, there are no active-duty military bases in the entire state of Oregon! So, the chances of bumping into an off-duty sergeant in Washington County are especially few and far between.

This, in my opinion, has led to a lionization of those who serve. We are rare, we are perceived as heroic, and average civilians tend to treat us with exaggerated respect simply out of fear of being rude. “Thank you for your service,” falls off the lips today as it never did in my mother’s day, but few know what that even means.


So, if you will indulge me, I’d like to impart some understanding based on my 20 years of military service to the Washington County community at large. First, I’d like to strip away the myth of service. As a rule, we veterans do not consider ourselves heroes. Most of us joined for a variety of reasons and patriotism was only one of ‘em. And of those of us who served, the vast majority worked in support roles such as supply, militance, information technology, and personal offices. And while not the stuff of action movies, every job in the military is important.  I never met a Green Beret or Navy SEAL who didn’t want to get fed regularly or paid on time, and they really appreciated it when their equipment worked like it should in combat. But even for those of us who were front line troops, hero is still a word to be shunned as it is often reserved for the dead.

Now, about those dead…

In 2017, The Atlantic reported that then-president Trump questioned a Marine’s sacrifice during a Memorial Day visit to his grave. Trump was said to have stated to retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly about his beloved, deceased son and his comrades, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” Now, to be fair, the White House responded to the Atlantic story almost immediately, criticizing it as “just another anonymously sourced story meant to tear down a Commander-in-Chief who loves our military.”

Yeah, sure, whatever.

Still, the question must be answered: What is in it for them? And please listen carefully, everyone, because the answer is… nothing. Face it, once you’re dead, your dead. And no nation, no mater how grateful, can ever give back a life that has been sacrificed for its defense. The deceased servicemember will never know if their life was lost in vain, or in the victorious pursuit of freedom—that most noble of causes. But they made the sacrifice all the same.

What is in it for them? I repeat, nothing. So, the question then becomes, what’s in it for us? What is it worth to have someone you may not even like or agree with, stand and be willing to die to protect your rights and safety?

Above I quoted our last Republican President as he stood over a modern Marine’s grave. Now, I will quote our first Republican President as he memorialized the fallen of his long ago era, so please pay heed:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Democracies are fragile things, and must be preserved, practiced, and advanced so that those who gave us their lives may live on in the hearts of those of us who will carry on in this great experiment we call the United States of America.

–Staff Sergeant, US Army (Retired) Clayton J. Callahan