2017 Events

What Memorial Day Means To Me

By Jennifer Calaway


The plane ride over to Afghanistan was excruciating. Just over a hundred of us Marines … completely silent. A rare find. Not one of us knowing quite what to expect. Awkward coughing. The shifting of gear in the cramped space. I could almost hear Marines taking inventory of their lives, loved ones, regrets. It was a natural time of contemplation.


I jumped off the plane into an assault of dry, ashy heat. The sun was blinding. The moment my boots hit the tarmac, I felt my body stiffen – but not on the outside. I wouldn’t notice it until nearly a year later, but every nerve in my body jumped to its full throttle alertness in that moment, and it stayed there. I was suddenly more aware of people moving behind me. I could hear muted conversations that previously would have wafted by unnoticed. I became aware of the escape route in every situation I walked into. I thought of General Mattis’ famous words constantly: “Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” This was not an intentional shift. I didn’t fancy myself one of those die-hard Marines who live through Marine Corps mottos and recite the Rifleman’s Creed in their sleep. I was a broadcast journalist – a POG. I captured video stories for AFN and my b-roll went back and aired on new channels like CNN, Fox News and NBC in the background of the anchors’ news reports. Here it was just smart to have a plan at all times. Especially once I stepped foot outside of the wire.


Flash forward to beautiful Boulder, Colorado. University of Colorado Boulder campus, where Mattis’ famous words don’t translate very well amongst my 18-21 year old student peers. I am one of the lucky ones who pulled myself away from the bottle enough to complete the hours of paperwork and process veterans must complete to take advantage of the Montgomery G.I. Bill post-service education. My first day on campus, I found myself standing in the middle of Norlin Quadrangle, an expansive space of lush green grass flanked by historic academic buildings and, in the distance, the picturesque Boulder flatirons. I am frozen watching students meander by in small packs and singles, catching wafts of conversation: “this f***ing iPhone app.” And “I couldn’t believe she was such a bitch to me …” I feel the insides of my body tense and have to close my eyes and push that new phrase into my cells. “Jenn. This is what we are fighting for.”


I grew up in a town very similar to Boulder. I remember not knowing a thing about war, military, foreign affairs … my days were spent at the mall and I avoided thoughts like those that made me feel uncomfortable. I also remember the first time I saw a dead body in combat. He was a small Afghan man who had attacked an earlier squad on patrol. They didn’t have the capacity to carry him back to our forward operating base to be picked up by Afghan officials so we carried him for a few miles. He looked to be 18 or 19, but his skin and hands were those of a 90 year-old man. No family or townspeople came to mourn his loss or pick him up prior to us so we had no clues as to why he had singlehandedly rushed the Marines. Some shrugged it off as a death wish.


I think of him sometimes on campus. He was a handsome, young Afghan man and could have had a full life ahead of him – much like the young students I sit in class with every day. I am filled with bouts of intense emotion when I think about “what we are fighting for.” Some days, it is overwhelming gratitude that I was born in America, where we are treated with a blissfully unaware existence in which we can choose to catch a movie, take a dip in the creek or lunch on the patio of our favorite lunchtime spot. Other times, I have been filled with rage at that same “blissful” lack of awareness as I look around at those “we are fighting for.”


You see, it is not just those killed in action on “our side” of any conflict that eats at my heart and keeps my inner world on full blast some nights. It is the impenetrable hopelessness that abounds in the countries we fight in, the young men in those communities who attack foreign troops when they can’t stand another second. I mourn for our own veterans who will remain checked out for the rest of their lives because of the things they saw, their walking corpses screaming for the help their voices never will. I mourn for those born in other countries, who will never experience any of the small luxuries we do here in America, like iPhones and manicured grass and hiking trails. Most of all, I find myself mourning for those who live “blissfully unaware,” complaining about technology and politics or the sandwich they just ordered, never dreaming that they could be so fed up with the injustice of life that they would fight to their death for a different one.


It is hard to distill exactly what Memorial Day means to me, but today my insides are calm. My nerves are relaxed and I have a deep knowing that inner calm has been hard earned, to say the least. I have gone from “blissfully unaware” teen to a fully aware woman. I am proud to have fought for this freedom in my own, small way. I am proud to be a Marine. I am especially proud that so many get to live beautiful, blissful lives because so many others are doing their part right now in this very moment. I am eternally grateful for the sacrifice of those who have been killed in any conflict and on this Memorial Day, I find myself grateful to simply be alive.