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Commentary: I fought in the Iraq War. Here’s why I wage an internal battle every year on Memorial Day.

05/22/20

Read the full article by Supervisor Nathan Fletcher in the San Diego Union-Tribune here.

Every year on Memorial Day, I am forced to confront my grief for those gone and my own struggle with survivor’s guilt. While it is important and appropriate to honor those whose service led to the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, it is especially painful for those of us who returned from combat when our brothers and sisters did not.

Serving my country, upholding the ideals of life and liberty, of freedom and equality, have made me who I am today. I value the camaraderie it instilled in me and at times the tough lessons that came with serving in combat: mustering courage when you’re most afraid, sacrifice where you are willing to give your own life for someone else, and enduring when it doesn’t seem possible. Duty, honor, valor, loyalty. The Marines molded me into a man I wanted to be. It is a part of who I am.

On this day and many others, I wage an internal battle. Like many veterans of my generation who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Memorial Day presents a personal dilemma. It is difficult to reconcile the honor and pride I feel of having served with the harsh reality that I question the value of our sacrifice. I struggle to answer the simple question, “Was it worth it?”

I fought in the Iraq War, where we went into a bad situation based on a false premise — and now see an outcome that is objectively worse than when we invaded. In Afghanistan, thousands of lives have been lost in an almost two-decade war that never had a clear focus on al-Qaeda and still doesn’t have an exit strategy in sight.

Those competing emotions are at their most intense when I hear “Taps” as a part of a bugle call. The haunting musical tribute to the dead triggers an overwhelming grief in me, not only for the friends I’ve lost, but because I question if their sacrifice truly had purpose. It is the search for meaning on Memorial Day that is most challenging.

But there is a better way to think about it.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” author Viktor E. Frankl, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, delves deeply into finding purpose in what appears to be unjust or meaningless suffering or adversity. Frankl has perhaps the greatest claim to truly needless heartache and despair. Yet even in those circumstances, he is able to offer this wisdom: “Everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Each year on Memorial Day, I pledge to channel my own grief and questioning into creating meaning and purpose. I commit to rigorously questioning the intentions of war and to never forgetting the real, lasting impact and moral harm that armed conflict has on humanity.

But more than that, I strive to live the guidance of Frankl — to choose a positive path, to commit to continued service and to use this day to reinforce the fundamental ideals behind service, honor and sacrifice. This is and should always be foundational to the American experiment.

President Abraham Lincoln once said, “to ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own.” I know, firsthand, this is one reason you see so many veterans continue to serve their community, one another and their country once out of uniform. The spirit of service cannot and should not ever be broken.

And now, all Americans are called to tap into our own sense of duty as we face one of the most difficult challenges in our nation’s history. It’s ironic that a nation founded on the sacrifice of life to ensure personal liberty is now being called on to sacrifice personal liberty to preserve lives during this pandemic.

My hope is that our nation can call forth its spirit of service and sacrifice to show the greatness of which we know we are capable. May this Memorial Day remind all of us to be grateful for service, for sacrifice, and, most of all, for life.