Gold Stars, Broken Hearts
With arms outstretched I spun joyfully until the cloudless sky became a dome of blue above my head. The grass was lush and cool beneath my bare feet. The “chiit-chiit” of irrigation sprinklers, squabbling birds, and the clinking of pots an pans coming through the back window as mom puttered in her kitchen, orchestrated the music of an unremarkable afternoon in May. The Moab valley, a paradoxical gash in the desert of Southern Utah, is rimmed by sheer sandstone cliffs that reflect the sun’s heat to the valley floor, which makes the center of town very hot during the warm months. When it got too hot outside on that day in May of 1970, I retreated indoors and sat down to play quietly with my Barbie dolls as Dad watched TV.
Some cousins and other relatives began to show up. We greatly enjoyed our cousins and extended family, so to me, an 8 year old girl and baby of a large family, this seemed like fun. I couldn’t understand why everyone grew so terribly serious when a man in a white uniform came to our door. With gold buttons and blue and gold epaulets on his jacket, he looked majestic as he took one…two steps, straight and slow, into our small living room. Mom gasped and threw her hand to her mouth. The man in the white suit took off his cap. I don’t believe he said anything. But the room erupted in muffled screams–and someone cried, “Don is dead. Don’s been killed.”
“He doesn’t look natural. But at least he’s in one piece.” My mom’s words encompassed all she knew about the barbarity of war. Many sons were blew to pieces in Vietnam. Some never came home at all. My parents took constrained solace in the fact that inside his casket, their boy was intact. Though waxen and a little puffy, Don was whole. His chest, underneath his Naval dress blues, seemed boxy. Perhaps some cosmetic filler has been placed in the wounds where shrapnel has ripped through his lungs when his swift boat was hit by Viet Cong artillery on May 17, 1970.
An involuntary shudder ran through my body as the sky cracked with the first volley. Two more followed, and by the last one I was covering my ears. The 21 Gun Salute, my brother’s casket draped with the American Flag, and the presence of everyone I knew, relatives, teachers, family friends, and people I had never met before, bestowed a stature on that moment at the Sunset Memorial Cemetery that I could not fully appreciate. Taps was played by a local Legionnaire, imperfect, but haunting and final.
The time between Don’s death and his body arriving in Moab was about 10 days, so his funeral fell on Memorial Day. Vibrant mounds of fresh flowers and wreaths covered Don’s grave as other families filled the cemetery to decorate existing graves whose settled dirt was green with established grass. Don’s grave was high with fresh soil, and it stood out from among the others. My parents always observed “Decoration Day” by traveling to all our ancestral towns to place ornate sprays of flowers on the often bare grave sites located in the desert towns of Green River, Utah and Paradox, Colorado. The final week of May, 1970 seemed like an extended Memorial Day holiday, saturated with flowers, bitter tears, and too many good byes.
Don’s medals now hang in a glass covered wooden frame that also displays the last picture my parents took of him before he departed from the Moab airport to report for river patrol duty in the deltas of South Vietnam. The frame sits on my bedroom dresser, and the photograph of Don speaks of a sober young man with distant eyes, his face showing little emotion, standing on the tarmac of a remote salt pan airfield. One recent evening, as I knelt beside my bed, having finished a prayer, I looked at Don’s picture and his youthful face. I felt a presence–or an awareness–of my brother who died at the age of 22. I sensed a young spirit close to me, not that of an elder brother–although Frederick Don Snyder was the second to the oldest child and I was the youngest of seven–but of a youth, roughly the same age as my children are now.
“Don could be my son,” I thought to myself as I gazed upon his final picture. Mom often said that when she took that snapshot of him before he boarded the flight that would forever carry him from his home, she knew she would never see him again. Behind Don’s stoic face, was perhaps, the same thought. But as I pondered my young brother, that recent evening, in the quiet of my room, it seemed he came to me for a moment to remind me that, although my child’s grief at the time of his death was no small thing, the anguish of my parents was a pain far greater, almost beyond words, something only Gold Star hearts can understand.
When I was a but little girl, my parents lost their boy to war in a confusing and discordant era. Now thousands of my peers, contemporaries, men and women who would have been my playmates had I known them in 1970, have lost their precious sons and daughters in the protracted, confusing, and discordant wars in Muslim countries. For a moment, as I remembered the tender youth of my fallen brother, the weight of their losses rested upon my mind, and I was enveloped in a poignant gratitude for those stoic sons and daughters who now choose to stand on the tarmacs of hometown airports and say “good bye” to their moms and dads for what could be the last time.
Death is not inevitable, and military service in America is not compulsory for young men and women. These youths choose to place their lives in harm’s way as a ransom for liberty. Although politics may rage at home, they have chosen to fight, not for a party or a chosen leader, but for the idea of freedom. Parents who raise warriors know that their sons and daughters understand the cost of freedom, and every moment of every day presents an opportunity for that cost to be exacted in blood. The weight of liberty; our freedoms, prosperity, enjoyment, hopes and dreams, is borne upon the bodies of those who serve in our Armed Forces. That weight is also borne by the hearts of parents and loved ones of those warriors. There is no human means by which to reconcile the loss of a child to war, nor earthly standard to measure the value of a life given that man may be free. Only God knows the full degree of a parent’s agony. Only God embraces the youthful spirits who return to Him, too soon, having willingly given their young lives that His principle of human agency may be realized.
May Heavenly Father’s blessings rest upon our Gold Star parents and families–the young wives and husbands whose sweethearts are ripped from their grasp, the angel daughters and darling sons whose daddies and mommies cannot witness their lives as they blossom and grow–as they remember their precious sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and mommies and daddies, this day. May they feel to the fullest extent, the eternal nature of their sacrifice in the cause of liberty, and the gratitude of the American people.
by Marjorie Haun 9/29/13