Just Another Memorial Day?

May 30, 2016 Memorial Day by Dean Lambert

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The older you get, the faster time goes by. It seems impossible a year has passed since I visited the Iowa Veterans Cemetery on Memorial Day and participated in the various commemorative events with my Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) chapter. As the child of a United States Air Force officer who is a decorated Viet Nam War Veteran and military consultant after retirement from the service, the brother of a U.S. Navy Seal Team member, and the father of a Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps who served in Afghanistan, I have a deep reverence for the Armed Forces and the meaning of Memorial Day.

There are 134 National Cemeteries operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and more than 120 State Veterans Cemeteries (with several under construction at this writing). Having lived in many states growing up and enjoying motorcycle touring as an adult, I have traveled to many National and State Veterans Cemeteries: Among these include the “big one” at Arlington, Camp Butler and Abraham Lincoln in IL; Fort Logan, CO; Black Hills, SD; Bay Pines in St. Petersburg, FL; Crown Hill at Indianapolis; Little Rock, AR; Knoxville, TN; and Omaha, NE. These cemeteries are among the most stunning and solemn places in America.

I have visited the Iowa Veterans Cemetery on Memorial Day every year since it opened. The first time my son accompanied me was right after it was dedicated in July 2008. He just turned 17. We rode there on our motorcycles, made a loop around the grounds and stopped at the second section near the columbaria. This was the first section in which they began interments.

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Even this soon after being built, the niches were filling up fast with Veterans of early wars whose families held on to loved ones’ remains in anticipation of the cemetery’s opening. More striking was the number of niche and grave markers bearing the names of Iowans who lost their lives in current conflicts. It made quite an impression on my son. I took a photo* of him sitting on his bike parked next to mine. His gaze was fixed on the graves laid out in front of him. We stayed for a couple of hours that day.

I return to the Iowa Veterans Cemetery on special occasions like Veterans Day, Independence Day and Armed Forces Day. I go there to visit some of the Veterans I was privileged to escort on PGR missions. The first time I rode in an escort for a young Marine killed in Afghanistan was particularly difficult. LCPL Joshua Davis graduated early from high school to join the Marine Corps and was killed by sniper fire mere months after arriving in country. He was just 19. I see his mom and dad at the cemetery on occasion. That’s where I learned his sister joined the Marines. They were both proud and concerned, as you might expect. I am proud to know his sister, who is today honorably discharged from the military and a beloved member of the Iowa PGR.

It’s supposed to rain this Memorial Day, and I’ll be there again with my son. This time we won’t be on motorcycles, but not because of the rain.

Adam James Lambert died July 5, 2015, succumbing to PTSD-related issues with which he struggled since returning home the previous summer. I will be joining families of approximately 315,000 Veterans across America who perish each year from old age, illness, accidents, suicide, and while serving in war.

According to the Veterans Administration estimate above, Adam’s mother, sisters and I are not alone in visiting their Veteran’s grave on Memorial Day for the first time.

Among the “what ifs” about which we’ll be thinking on Monday, is how else we might be spending the day had our son not died. Besides a trip to the cemetery, maybe on the bikes, we would be calling him or bursting into his room early in the morning to wish him a happy birthday. Adam would have turned 25 on May 30.

I’d like to think his grandfather, uncle and I instilled in Adam the patriotism and respect for Veterans he exhibited. But I think he intuitively knew that every birthday was special because he was born on that special day. He was very aware of the profound sacrifices made by the brave men and women who are laid to rest at the Iowa Veterans Cemetery. I never had to prod him into including the cemetery in our birthday ride or drive – he often led the way there. Veterans were among his inspirations for joining the U.S. Marines. Adam spent time during his last two birthdays visiting with the souls of Iowa Veterans, and now he is with them forever.

I saw Josh Davis’s parents at the cemetery this fall. The last time I ran into them, I was walking away from where their son is laid to rest. It was the first time I spoke to them since the funeral a few years earlier. I re-introduced myself, and told them how honored and inspired I was to have been a part of his services. By that time Adam had joined the Marines and they acknowledged how proud his mother and I must be.

This past September or October, I was walking down the hill from another section in the cemetery. Josh’s mom waved, so I went over to talk with them. We said hello, I asked how they were doing, and they asked who I came to visit that day. They assumed I was visiting another Veteran I served with the PGR. I could barely speak. My voiced cracked as I said, “My son Adam.” Although it barely came out, they heard for the first time that my son had died.

No, my family is certainly not alone in losing a child to a military-related death. Josh never came home from the war, and Adam really never did either. No Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine ever does.

As difficult as it will be for my family this Memorial Day, millions of people will visit cemeteries across this great country of ours to honor the men and women who made a sacrifice for freedom. Young and old, they’ll stand or kneel at the grave of a family member, friend or stranger who spent a part of their life experiencing something those of us who have not served cannot comprehend.

This is what Memorial Day means to my family and me, this year more than ever.

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*The photo with Adam on his motorcycle is eerily foreboding. He is looking just to the right of where he would be laid to rest in seven years. His grave is less than a hundred yards away, just over the hill to the left of the tree in front of him.