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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

The battlefields and cemeteries that are more than scenery

My earliest memories of Memorial Day are of the annual parade in my hometown of Perrysburg, Ohio. It was an opportunity for the community to come together to honor the service of its veterans. And I am old enough to remember when the veterans leading the parade were from World War I, marching as erect as their bent frames would allow.

We kids would get to join in the parade at the tail end and ride all the way to the city's main cemetery about a mile from downtown. By the time we arrived, the excitement and noise of the parade had given way to quiet reverence as the gathers listened to a member of the clergy give a benediction and a speaker or two invoked the memory of the fallen. Not being much for speeches at that age, my buddies and I would wander the cemetery looking at the gravestones of veterans from wars past as far back as the Civil War.

This memory was jogged when I heard an interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation with military historian Victor Davis Hanson recalling the times he had visited battlefields or war memorials. He made the point that it was the sacrifice of men (and now women) on such battlefields in wars at home and abroad who made our lives today possible. We know this cognitively but I doubt we know it at the gut level.

Since only a tiny minority of our population has served in the military, for many of us one of the few connections to the military we have, aside from what we see on television, are memorials to those who sacrificed for our cause. Too often these memorials are part of the scenery, not part of our consciousness.

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of soldiers who serve do come home but few come home unchanged. For so many years we thought that post-traumatic stress syndrome was something only soldiers in Vietnam suffered. Not true. As Dr. Johathan Shay, a staff psychiatrist at a VA hospital in Boston and MacArthur Fellow, has written so eloquently in his books,every soldier in every war since the Trojan War (and before that too) is subject to it. Homer taught us that men cannot experience suffering such as soldiers experience in war and remain unaltered.

One passage about war that I have often quoted comes fromCaptain Lionel Ferguson, who served in the British Army during the "Great War." Reflecting years after the Armistice, Captain Ferguson wrote: "For the first time in our lives we [veterans] have known the meaning of 'Hunger,' 'Thirst,' 'Dirt,' 'Death' and other privations. We, I think, have all known the meaning of the word 'Fear' as we have never seen it... We who went through it know that those at home never did realize the work that 'The Solider' was asked to do."

Men and women who serve in war do so as a gift to the rest of us. Most of us will use that gift as a time for a family get-together or an extra day around the house. Nothing wrong in that but let's remember the reason for this day. It is because others -- from the days of Lexington and Concord through Gettysburg, Chateau-Thierry, Guadalcanal, Normandy, the Ia Drang Valley, Baghdad and now Kandahar -- have put their lives on hold, some permanently, for the freedoms we take for granted.

By John Baldoni

 |  May 28, 2010; 10:22 AM ET
Category:  Wartime Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The Memorial Day memory I want hasn't happened yet and I'm sure it never will. I want the memory of George W. Bush on all national TV outlets apologizing to the grieving, devastated and bereft loved-ones of all the Americans who have died in Iraq; not because of 9/11, not because of weapons of mass destruction, not because Iraq had anything to do with Bush's war, but because Bush wanted to be in his words "a war president". It was for this pathetic man's vanity and weakness, his total dependence on people who had agendas of their own and his own willing ignorance that over 4,000 decent, patriotic American soldiers died. He has never had and will never have the courage to admit that.

Posted by: m_richert | June 1, 2010 12:00 AM
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Thank you, Jonathan 16, both for your service and your thoughts.

Posted by: thmas | May 31, 2010 11:21 PM
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Northrup Grummond (sp) are celebrating this special day with ads in the subway in Washington D.C. and with full page ads in our newspapers. They are happy!

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | May 31, 2010 11:08 PM
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Why aren't the illegals marching in the streets today???

Posted by: TooManyPeople | May 31, 2010 4:18 PM
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Some of them are, their children serve too.

I said that to say this. This holiday is about honoring those who have fought, struggled, and died in the nation's service. Concern yourself with that, we can return to the usual backbiting, bickering and sharpshooting tomorrow.

Posted by: sircrazywolf | May 31, 2010 6:42 PM
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Please do not claim to “honor” Soldiers by super-imposing your values or politics on us. We serve our country regardless of who is President, regardless of which party holds a majority in Congress, regardless of whether the predominant mood of the Country is “hawkish” or “dovish”, regardless of what the hot button domestic political issue of the day is. We serve our country during times of war and of peace, times of domestic unity and of domestic division, times of economic plenty and of scarcity. We have served, and continue to serve, our Country unequivocally. Honor that. Find a vet, or more importantly, a family that has lost a loved one, say “Thank You,” and save politics for tomorrow.

Posted by: jonathan16 | May 31, 2010 6:34 PM
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Why aren't the illegals marching in the streets today???

Posted by: TooManyPeople | May 31, 2010 4:18 PM
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When I was growing up in the 1950s, we referred to the holiday as "Decoration Day." Everyone would go to the cemeteries of a morning to put flowers on the graves of loved ones. And in my family, after doing that, we would go to Claremore (Oklahoma) Lake for an annual Willhoite reunion picnic. Some of my Doty relatives would be tere, too.

Mom's brother, Albert, was a WW II and Korean Conflict Vet. He was also a member of the VFW and participated in ceremonies at the cemetery in Claremore before going to the lake.

I am a US Army Veteran AND am also what one would call a Vietnam 1968 Tet Holiday Offensive Veteran. I don't wake up when I have nightmares related to what happened from January 31, 68 thru February 13, 68; but, I have had guys who lived in my home who told me that those nightmares woke them up. A Vet Center Social Worker told me that it was good that they didn't do that because I would remember the dreams too vividly. I had a nightmare on the night of 9/11 and woke up Danny, my in-home health care provider. He came to my bedroom door and listened to what I was saying.

Danny told me the next morning that while he knew what I had seen on the news during the day triggered the flashback dream, I sounded like I was in a war zone telling others what to do.

While a couple of VA Social Workers know about my nightmares and PTSD, the VA officially hasn't diagnosed that problem. I got to get someone to prove that I have war-zone related PTSD.

Posted by: joe_allen_doty | May 31, 2010 2:39 PM
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The first commenter, a veteran, described the historical reality as well as anyone else.

The only wars this country has fought in that were indisputably necessary and directly contributed to the freedoms we enjoy today were the American Revolution, Civil War and World War II. The generation that fought in World War II made sacrifices equivalent to the people loyal to the Union during the Civil War. They should always be remembered for their bravery and for fighting in noble, justified wars.

Unfortunately nearly all the other wars this country has fought were not necessary or were wrong, especially the Mexican War, wars against native Americans, Spanish-American war, Vietnam and the second war against Iraq, none of which had anything to do with the freedoms we have today.

Ulysses S. Grant bravely fought in the Mexican War, honored his fellow American soldiers, but considered it an entirely unjustified war of aggression against Mexico. His seems to be a model for how we should look upon those who fought in unjustified wars.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | May 31, 2010 1:34 PM
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For those who served throughout all the wars, and survived -- welcome home, and to the families of those who didn't -- my deepest gratitude.

Wishing you all a happy yet solemn Memorial Day.

williepete1

Posted by: williepete1 | May 31, 2010 12:07 PM
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The true warriors of this great Republic of ours, are the men and women who so proudly serve and have served! You, dear people have the strongest voice today and are being heard not only throughout our America but throughout the world.

Yours is not a life of baseless platitudes but a heart of service and for that I salute you!

My son proudly wears the uniform of the United States Navy and is ready to step down this fall but he will always have that WARRIORS heart and will always be ready to protect and defend everyone who loves freedom.

May God bless not only our fallen and retirees but may God continue to lift up those who still wear the uniform.

A proud mom of one who serves.

Posted by: imaginemore | May 31, 2010 11:46 AM
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What saddens me most is the soldiers who died so we could have all ten of the Bill of Rights freedoms, only to come home with just 9 of those freedoms themselves, because Congresspersons such as Frank Lautenberg and Charles Schumer feel that a veteran with any degree of post-traumatic stress syndrome who possesses a firearm (likely for hunting is all) should be treated as a felon.

This is criminalizing veterans, just because they served. They lose one of the Bill of Bights Freedoms not for committing a crime, but for sacrificing for the nation. Go to war as a free man, return as a serf. Thanks to Senators Lautenberg and Schumer.

Give these cads posing as Congresspersons a call today, leave them a message giving a piece of your mind, and then vote them out office.

Senator Chuck Schumer 212-486-4430

Senator Frank Lautenberg (973) 639-8700

Posted by: RealTexan1 | May 31, 2010 10:20 AM
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I honor the memory of the soldiers because soldiers have no other choice than obey orders.

I hear the same coment " for the freedoms that we take for granted" United States have never been invaded my a foreign army. I just to live in a country that was invaded by the Marines four times.

In what way the War in Iraq or Afghanistan is helping the freedoms that I enjoyed today. I see no connection. I can see a conection wit World War II. But this others are war of choice of our politicians. I honor the soldier because they have to obey the commands from obove. but the politicians like Cheney and Clinton. Well Clinton never started a real war. How about Bush? Never served, but send hundres of young american in harms way.

the minute we are out of Irak they will have another dictator of one kind or another. Same Afghanistan. Why are we there? If the ploters of 9/11 had done their evil plotting in the jungles of Brasil, do we need to invade that country to us feel safe? Stupid. The 9/11 terrorist could have plotted anywhere in the world. There are almost 30 million people in Afghanistan and we are subjecting the country to an terrible war because maybe 100 bastard dis in their country several years ago. Most of them were Saudis. Why we did not invade Saudi Arabia?. After 9/11 our own government help all the Saudis in Washigton to leave the country. why? Included were relative of Osama Ben Laden. Why?

God bless our soldiers and remember that those that sent them over seas got deferments when they were their age.

Anthony
(written but not edited. sorry for the errors)

Posted by: coratony | May 31, 2010 10:17 AM
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It isn't what they did say about the war, its what they didn't say that impressed me. An uncle served with the marines on three islands in the Pacific and then in Korea. His life was the wars. He rarely spoke, was a gruff as they come, had little money, and was generous to a fault.

Posted by: hipshot | May 31, 2010 9:54 AM
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I just put a flag on my front door in honor of someone very dear to me. Cheney had 5 differments that kept HIM out of Vietnam....the person I know had 2little boys, still, he went............

Posted by: jean1028 | May 31, 2010 9:18 AM
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I wonder how all theose who served and lost their lives would feel about today's Government wanting to give the Nation away to Illegal Aliens ??? Is this what they fought for ???

Posted by: catinhat83510496 | May 31, 2010 8:59 AM
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As a veteran, I'm torn every Memorial Day.... some have sacrificed everything for the U.S. And many others have been taken advantage of by politicians willing to send the kids of others off on 'adventures' of glory that neither they nor their kids would dream of joining. It's a bitter-sweet holiday. Not all who died or were wounded died to keep America free and strong. Some died to keep the political class strong and irresponsible.....

Posted by: tbrucia | May 31, 2010 8:28 AM
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