It used to be called Decoration Day; the day when the graves of our nation’s war dead were decorated with flowers. Though recognized since the Civil War, it wasn’t until 1971 that Memorial Day became a U.S federal holiday to honor those who died during active duty military service, especially during one of our nation’s many wars. It shouldn’t be, but is often confused with Veterans Day. That is when we honor all who have served in the armed forces, and the less popular Armed Forces Day celebrates all those who are currently serving.
As I type this, I’m sitting on my back porch looking across my yard through a barbed wire fence to a storage yard on the Navy Base. The yard is surrounded by a running path, some pull-up bars and other permanent exercise equipment. Not the most scenic view, but I love it. There is always a new piece of military equipment coming or going. I usually wake to the sound of men and a few women doing early morning training runs and grueling exercises. On rainy days, the instructors seem to take pleasure in having their trainees do extra push-ups in the mud puddles, but the base is quiet today. They are taking the day off. To remember.
Every morning at 8am, the national anthem plays over the loudspeakers and all activity on the base stops. If I am fortunate to be home at the time, I stop too. In my pajamas, I stand and place my hand over my heart, taking a moment to pause and reflect. To remember.
When we looked at this house, the realtor told us that each morning the divers run by in their tiny khaki shorts. I teased my wife about putting up a 12 foot privacy fence, but as long as we live here I will never put up a privacy fence. I never want to forget what is on the other side of that barbed wire fence and why that base is there. I never want to forget my Dad. He used to work there. Recently, they brought to the yard one of the mini submarine-like vehicles my Dad used to work on. They call them SDVs.
My father was a career Navy man. He graduated high school in the early 70s. It was a small town in southern New Jersey, you’ve probably never heard of it, but it was the same town actor Bruce Willis was from. On more than one occasion one of my family members said “Jason, why don’t you call Bruce’s family and tell them you’re an actor!” I told them it’s not that easy, but my mom did share a dance with him in middle school, so who knows.
Dad told me once that he thought he was going to be drafted, so he went ahead and enlisted. His thinking was, if he was going to war he wanted to be with some of the best trained people over there. His plan worked out and he found his name on a very short list; one of the few sailors that have earned the title of U.S. Navy SEAL. He did not get sent to Vietnam, but not all of his friends were so fortunate and on one rare occasion I heard him express what could best be described as survivor’s guilt. His pain was real.
To be honest, I could never really imagine my Dad as a Navy SEAL. He was nothing like the guys in the movies and the tv shows. He was quiet and patient with a cornball sense of humor and an infectious belly laugh that you thought would never stop once he got going. He was also really sentimental. He would get teary eyed at a Hallmark card or sappy tv show. This was confusing and kind of embarrassing to me as a kid. My childhood theory was he must have had to suppress his emotions as part of this job, so it was only natural that after over twenty years in the Navy all those emotions were coming to the surface. The older I get, I realize this was not the case. I know, because I am becoming the same way, more every day. It was just the way he was. The way I am.
Growing up, I didn’t know much about what my Dad did in the Navy. I did know that we didn’t move as often as most military families, in fact we mainly bounced back and forth between VA and FL. One year, I had a girl in my class in FL and my family moved to VA over the summer to find the same girl in my class in VA. It freaked us both out. Most of the military kids I knew also had parents that were divorced. I later learned that divorce rates are higher in the Special Forces, so it is not surprising. Many years ago, I dramatized a dialogue based on what I imagined to have been a commonplace conversation among couples in my Dad’s line of work:
-I have to go.
-Where are you going?
-I can’t tell you.
-When will you be back?
-I don’t know.
-Can you call me when you get there?
-I love you.
-I love you too.
I’m not sure how any relationship can survive that kind of stress.
During high school, I planned to enlist in the Navy. I was told by the enthusiastic recruiters that I could do boot camp between my junior and senior year of high school. I took the ASVAB and had a list of jobs I could choose from. I wanted to be an aerial photographer. I was excited about the idea of travel, adventure and most importantly free college tuition. My father was not nearly as excited as I expected him to be. Not at all. Ultimately, I didn’t follow in my father’s footsteps. Perhaps ironically, it was my father who talked me out of the Navy. During a rare intimate conversation he asked me, “Do you know why we have the military?” I was caught off guard. I paused for too long and started to mutter something about national defense, so he answered for me, “War.” I did not know what to say so I just stood there looking at the recruiting pamphlet in my hand. It looked like the movie poster from TOP GUN. At some point he said, “You know you may have to take a life.” My heart sunk. I did not know how to respond. I don’t remember much after that. I did not go into the Navy and instead followed my passion for the arts and became a theatre major in college. I’ve spent the last twenty-six years as an actor and teacher. Turns out Dad knew me better than I knew myself.
I don’t have many regrets in life, but I sometimes wish I had spent some time in the Navy, mainly to have a deeper connection to something that was so much a part of his life, but I would not change the way things have worked out. I know my life would be very different if I had chosen that path. I would not have met my wife or had my son.
A few years ago, at school, my son, who shares my father’s name, received a certificate for his grades and for his efforts in music and physical education. P.E.? The son of two drama nerds got an award for P.E.? My wife and I almost fell out of our chairs. My Dad would have gotten a real kick out of that. He was a high school athlete who played football and excelled as a wrestler. I also played football in 8th grade. By played, I mean wore the costume and watched the show from the bench. After the ceremony, as my wife and I were congratulating our son, one of my son’s friends came over. He was trying to be cheerful, but he was fighting back tears. He hugged my son, and expressed his disappointment in not getting a certificate of his own. His parents were not there. His father was active duty and is currently deployed and his mother was most likely at work. He did not receive a certificate on that day, but he probably should have. The sacrifices made as part of military service are not only endured by those serving. We hugged this young man and encouraged him. I thought about the sacrifices this father and son were making so that I could be here on this day with my son. It hit me hard and now we were both holding back tears.
I see so much of my Dad in my son. His blue eyes. His love of the water. His corny jokes. His coarse light brown hair that seems impenetrable to water. I miss my Dad and wish more than anything that my son could grow up knowing this man.
The first funeral I ever attended was my father’s. I was twenty seven. He was fifty one. Fifty-one. The older I get the more I realize how young that is. My Dad has now been gone for eighteen years. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago and sometimes, on days like today, it feels like only yesterday. My father found a strong Christian faith late in his life. As a result, his transition to the next world was one of physical pain, but not one of fear. The confident faithful way he faced his death was his final gift to us.
My father’s faith teaches us that we will one day be united. I know that he lives on. His blood runs through the veins of his four adult children and eight grandchildren, two of which he got to meet in this life. His heart is still held with care by the two beautiful and strong women he called wife and I call mom. One of the hardest things is seeing men that are the age my father would be today. I occasionally will see an older man from behind in the store and swear for a moment that it’s him.
Recently my son and I went fishing in the rain. This is something else my father would have loved. We didn’t catch any fish, but that was not why we were there. It gave me an opportunity to talk to my son about when my Dad and I went fishing in the rain. To remember.
Today we honor those who died in service to our country. My father did not die in combat or during active duty military service, but he died far too young. Fifty-one is too young. So is eighteen and nineteen and thirty-five.
In my father’s case it was service related illness. In the late 60s and early 70s, the Navy practiced something called sun conditioning. Sailors were ordered to lie out in the sun and get sun burns. The idea was to get forced sun burns in training rather than while on a mission where a severe sunburn could make you less than battle ready. The Navy does not do this anymore and the doctors told us they see high rates of melanoma in the SEALs of my father’s generation. Three of my family members have gone to college on Dad’s V.A. benefits. This is another way his memory lives on.
If I ever doubted how my father could be an elite warrior I saw it in his final battle. I was on the other side of the country pursuing my career when my father and family were going through this battle, but I was in the room when the oncologist from one of the largest cancer research hospitals in the country told him that the treatment of the clinical trial was not working, but he was welcome to look online to see if he could find any other treatments he might be right for. Did this fancy doctor just tell my Dad to Google his treatment options? He handled this news way better than I did.
During his final days, many of his old Navy buddies came to visit him at the family home where he was under hospice care. I was surprised and honored to know that my father knew every detail of my plans to attend graduate school and study acting. He was about to leave this life and he was taking time to tell people that he was proud of me and what I was doing.
In my chosen career, I have had the honor of teaching and working with many student veterans. One of them holds a particularly special place in my heart. Having so much in common with my father and with me, I see him as a kind of link between us. I have been on hand to see many of his successes in recent years and it makes me proud to call him a former student, friend, colleague and brother. I think a lot about him on days like today. I think about his family and the sacrifices they have made. I think about the brothers and sisters he has lost. I think about the sacrifices they and their families have made.
Many connected to the military are fond of saying that to be on time is to be late and to be on time you have to be early.
I guess this was true for my Dad and me. My arrival on this earth was early, by about a month. His departure was also premature, by many years. He was there for my first breath and I was there for his last.
I will always be proud to be the son of a veteran. He gave me my life and encouraged me in the pursuit of my passions that gave me work I enjoy and a beautiful family. I will always stand in my pajamas when the national anthem is played from the Navy base next door and I will always try to honor those who paid the ultimate price in service to this nation in whatever small way I can. I will never block the barbed wire fence that separates my property from the base next door. I can’t. Because I need to remember.
According to David Eagleman:
“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
If this is true, in an effort to delay that third death for as long as possible, let us all choose to remember and continue to say their names. I will start with this one:
Brand J. Hedden, SCPO
U.S. Navy Seal, SDV Team 2
Dad, You are missed more than you will ever know.