Soldiers' Perspectives on Memorial Day

Memorial Day is meant for reflections on the service and sacrifices of U.S. military personnel and their families. Who are active duty soldiers and veterans of the Iraq war remembering?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates spent the weekend talking with veterans of our latest war, asking who they are remembering on Memorial Day.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The calendar says summer starts on June 21st, but here on the Sta. Monica Pier, Memorial Day is the gateway to summer. Crowds walk on the boardwalk, enjoying the sun and the ocean breezes. The ones that bother to look on the north side of the pier will see thousands of white crosses precisely aligned, many hung with hand-made tributes, symbols of gratitude for the service and sacrifice of dead military personnel.

Here at Arlington West, a memorial maintained by Iraq veterans who feel the war is a mistake, vets like Kevin Sendau(ph), want people to know who's not coming back, people like his Marine roommate, Gunnery Sergeant Jason Cook.

Mr. KEVIN SENDNAN (Iraqi War Veteran): He was a real Marine's Marine. He just oozed Marine Corps. The guy was the brightest, most athletic, competent, stellar Marine - just a role model, the kind of Marine that you'd want to be, the kind of sergeant that you'd want to be.

BATES: Jason Lameaux(ph) had three tours of duty in Iraq. He says his roommate, Oscar Valdez Jr.(ph), got him started on the right foot.

Mr. JASON LAMEAUX (Iraqi War Veteran): When I got to my duty station after I got out of boot camp, he was the first Marine to meet me there, and he showed me my room and showed me how to make my bed the way that they wanted it made and stuff.

BATES: They ended their first tour safely together. Then they went out again.

Mr. LAMIR: And when we went on our second deployment, he was killed in a firefight on April 17th of 2004. And he'd just gotten married before we left.

BATES: Paul Rieckhoff is a decorated veteran who is president of Washington, D.C.-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. It's a lobbying group that represents the interests of military personnel from those wars. When asked if he has someone he's thinking about on Memorial Day, Rieckhoff says without hesitation…

Mr. PAUL RIECKHOFF (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America): Jason Bonds(ph). He was a really good-natured kid, always joking around, and was a gunner in our 2nd Platoon.

BATES: Jason Bonds was riding in a vehicle that was hit hard by a roadside bomb. He took shrapnel in his upper body but survived that attack to return to his unit and fight again. Paul Rieckhoff…

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Bonds actually died three months after we got home. He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, went to the VA and had a real hard time re-acclimating. Just about three months after we got back, Jason Bonds took his own life. And although he didn't die on the ground in Iraq, I definitely consider him a casualty of this war, and he's somebody that's particularly remembered by our entire unit on Memorial Day, especially because we kind of felt like he was slipping away.

BATES: From Baghdad, Army Media Officer Major Andrew Morton remembers 1st Lieutenant Tim Rice(ph). He was a young assistant who worked for Morton when they both trained cadets at Virginia Tech.

Major ANDREW MORTON (U.S. Army): He was killed as he was moving to the scene of an accident. He was doing what he believed and working with the Iraqis and leading by example, and really, quite honestly, in a time of crisis he was there directing other people. And unfortunately small arms fire took his life.

BATES: Morton says Tim Rice was the kind of guy who volunteered to brief his cadets on what to expect of Army life before he took his own leave. He was also a young man who saw when a job needed doing and quietly did it. When Morton and his wife rushed to the hospital when their son was born, Tim Rice took their keys and volunteered to lock up the house. In their haste, Andrew Morton says, they'd left the nursery half-painted.

Mr. MORTEN: And I can tell you, when I came home from the hospital, the first thing on my mind was, oh no, I have to paint those rooms, and I walk in and Tim had done it, you know, obviously unbeknownst to anyone and basically unsolicited. And it was just the type of person that he was. And it was everything I could do to get him to even admit that he had done it.

BATES: However they feel about the war, everyone of the vets I spoke with was in agreement about one thing: Americans need to realize the sacrifices that are being made in Iraq on their behalf. On the beach, here's Jobama Gruder(ph). He's a National Guardsman who flew Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq.

Mr. JOBAMA GRUDER (National Guardsman): I want people to remember that there's a real sacrifice, that somebody is always going to have somebody who's not coming home.

BATES: And Paul Rieckhoff.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: It's more important than barbecues and yellow ribbons on the backs of cars. It's really about remembering those individual people and their families who have given so much for our country.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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