It’s time again to think about Memorial Day, which has been on my mind a lot. As a child, probably like many people, it meant cookouts and the countdown to school letting out for the year. All that changed for me in 2005, when, for the first time in my life, I found myself standing in a cemetery on Memorial Day, crying in front of a grave.
I couldn’t face the experience alone, so even though the Wilmington National Cemetery is only a block from my parents’ house, I loaded up Hosana, their dog, and drove her there. I didn’t want to be disrespectful and walk through the graveyard with her, but, as she watched me from the car, I walked through the grass down hill toward Snipes Elementary and found the fresh grave of my friend, Mac Smith, who had been killed by an IED in Iraq. In the warm sunshine, dressed in a black cotton dress, I broke down. I don’t know what I had expected to do or say or feel.
“I know this must seem common place to the Vietnam generation,” I said to my mother earlier that day. “But this is the first time I have lost someone in a war, and I am having a really hard time with it.”
“It never becomes common place dear,” she responded, her eyes filling with tears. “Never.”
I remembered the day we had spent at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in D.C.: her crying silently and tracing one name after another, and me trailing after her, speechless and powerless to comfort her. I wish I could take back my inaction. But our family never did well with discussing emotion. A strong defensive position is always essential when vulnerable emotions are visible; hence the “Vietnam generation” qualifier
Standing in front of Mac’s grave, crying, I realized I was being watched not only by Hosana but also a family of four. The father apologized for intruding, and asked me to tell his girls a little about the life of the soldier I knew. I was back to the beginning of the emotional spiral:
Mac had been JROTC in high school and enlisted when he graduated in 2000. At 22 he died in a war I didn’t understand and couldn’t condone, and his life, which was filled with so much joie de vivre, was gone. How could this be possible? What words could there be? I remembered riding bikes on Borden Avenue with him and his brother, Doug. We all learned to ride the same week. I realize it must have been around that same time of year, when hours between dinner and sunset allowed us to race up and down the street, laughing and yelling. I remembered playing endlessly on Saturdays in my treehouse with them. When Doug got a car, I recollected all the lunches we spent hanging out in the drama room. This was no youthful accident, no misjudgment in a car or with drugs. This was war. This was adult. This was permanent.
I climbed back in the car and hugged Hosana. Her fur stuck to my damp face. The seas of white tombstones swam before me. 2005 was a tough time to be in your early 20s, because this war that talking heads babbled on about on TV was being fought by your friends who were your age and younger.
Memorial Day became a three-day weekend with the passing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, which made Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day the three-day weekends that we have come to know and love. Prior to its current moniker, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, a time to honor soldiers fallen in the War Between The States. Families would gather at gravesides, bring wreaths and flowers, hold a memorial service and have a picnic. It is presented as a time more focused on family and less on commerce, but human nature being what it is, I am sure there was still advertising and marketing around Decoration Day.
Since, Memorial Day has turned into a time to have cookouts, weddings and mattress sales—it seems as good a time as any to look at the economics of military spending. It comes as no surprise that the U.S. has the highest military spending of any nation in the world. In 2011 that was $711 billion or more than China, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia, and Canada combined (a combined total of $695 billion).
As a business owner in southeastern North Carolina, I am keenly aware of the presence of five military bases within a short drive: Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg, Sunny Point, New River, and Seymour Johnson. Every week I talk with men and women in the service, their families who live on base, and the families visiting from all over the country. We tend to see a spike in visitors when a big deployment is set to happen at Camp Lejeune, or just after a large group comes back from deployment. Families gather to see their loved ones, but still must entertain themselves while the visited party has to go to work during the day. That can be hard to get a measurement on, but the actual military budget is something we can measure. So how much of this money spent on defense do we see here?
In 2013 North Carolina had almost 110,000 active duty personnel assigned to units here. An additional 340,000 private sector jobs are directly supported by the military. According to the NC Department of Commerce in 2012, 82 counties in NC had businesses that received defense contracts (that’s out of 100 counties total). New Hanover saw $66,958,741 in military contracting in 2012. We have 769,000 veterans spread across every one of those 100 counties in this state. In 2005 $3.7 billion was received as veterans’ compensation by veterans residing in North Carolina.
What is not really measured in any of these statistics is the financial impact of men and women in the service and their families, as they live their daily lives: grocery shopping, getting medicine, making veterinarian visits, scooping up school supplies, clothes, going to the movies, restaurants, bars, etc. In a weird way it is our federal tax dollars circulating back here: We pay Washington. Washington pays the wages of the military. The service members stationed nearby spend it in the local economy. Every few years when the outcry comes around again about drunk Marines at bars downtown, I just shake my head in wonder at the idea of turning down money. We can debate the validity of the wars, but we certainly can’t claim that we, in this area, do not benefit enormously from the military.
That is a precious consolation to the families who have lost loved ones. Though we are able to estimate a price tag for our dependence on military bases, thankfully, we don’t have a price for human life.