HIS STRONG STANCE, one boot planted in front of the other, ramrod posture all point to his disciplined military training. I am looking at a sculpture of a US soldier, a combat infantryman. As I study him, I gaze into his haunted eyes, eyes that, by my perception, reveal the horrors of war.
Perhaps it is my own father’s stories of fighting on the front-line during the Korean War that shape my reaction to this soldier replica at the Northfield Area Veterans Memorial. But this could be anyone’s interpretation. That of a daughter, like me, whose father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after leaving the killing fields of Korea. Or this could be the story of any active duty war veteran, the story of a spouse or child who lost a loved one on the battlefield, the stories of too many.
This Memorial Day, I pause to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice—their lives—to assure my freedom. My dad’s Army buddy and friend Ray was among those. Ray died the day before he was to leave Korea and return to his wife and infant daughter in Nebraska. My father witnessed Ray’s death and it broke a part of him.
These are the personal details we need to remember on Monday, a national day of mourning and remembrance for those who died on the battlefield. Veterans’ memorials and parades and programs all provide ways to honor the brave men and women who died in service to country. But their stories are equally as important. These are, after all, individuals with friends and families, likes and dislikes, histories written long before they were drafted or enlisted and then called to war.
Many Minnesota communities have veterans’ memorials. While designs differ, they share the commonalities of a centerpiece sculpture, sometimes a soldier or an eagle or some other strong symbol; pavers with veterans’ names imprinted; American and other flags; and ways to recognize all branches of the military. It is the names, accompanied by the initials KIA, which break my heart. KILLED IN ACTION. I recognize the intense pain and heartbreak experienced by loved ones back home. The grieving families. The Gold Star Mothers, a mother who lost a child in service to country. The fatherless children, like Teri, the infant daughter of my dad’s buddy, Ray. Overwhelming grief imprints upon those stone pavers.
This Memorial Day, I encourage you to reflect on the war dead whom we honor on Monday. Walk through a cemetery and pause at the graves marked by small American flags. Attend a Memorial Day program not out of a sense of obligation, but out of gratitude. I feel thankful for a free press. Not every country has such freedom.
Spend time at a veterans’ memorial beyond a precursory walk through. Appreciate the words, the names, the symbols, the artwork. And, if a soldier sculpture centers the memorial, look into his eyes and remember this biblical quote pulled from the memorial service folder my dad carried home from Korea: Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
That July 31, 1953, service folder from Sucham-dong Korea lists 28 soldiers who died on the battlefield, among them my dad’s beloved buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe, age 22. It is my dad’s grief and trauma I see when I gaze into the eyes of that soldier sculpture in Northfield. War carries so much death and loss and pain. I vicariously understand that. This Memorial Day I remember, reflect, honor, carry on my heart the heaviness of war.
© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling