16 April 2012

Everyday Memorials for Fallen Friends

Merle Hay Road in Des Moines, Iowa, is a busy north-south road that links a decades-old retail and commercial district to Camp Dodge, the largest military installation in the state.

In addition to strip malls, shops, and restaurants, there is notably an Earl May Nursery and Garden Center located on Merle Hay Road. The business has multiple Des Moines locations, but only one that invites this locally popular alliteration: "The Earl May on Merle Hay."

In these parts, that passes for practically poetic.

The street is notably named after the first U.S. soldier from Iowa—and perhaps the first American soldiers—killed in World War I. Merle David Hay, 24, was one of three U.S. 1st Infantry Division soldiers killed in trench warfare near Bathelémont-lès-Bauzemont, France, Nov. 2-3, 1917.

The best memorials gently jolt us out of our routines and distractions, and remind us of those now missing from our daily lives. I have to admit, however, that I drive on Merle Hay Road nearly every day, but that the experience rarely causes me to reflect upon World War I. I'm in too much of a hurry. Other people are, too.

There must be a better way.

In another life and job, I write about architecture, construction, and community planning. Personally and professionally, I love exploring the ways that we invest meaning in places and things. Whenever I travel to our nation's capital, I make a point of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When I find myself on the grounds of Camp Dodge, I try to stop by the 34th Division Memorial, a small monolith that commemorates the Red Bull soldiers of World War II. In today's media hustle and 24-hour traffic, however, stone walls do not always an ideal memorial make. It's a question of mental space as much as it is physical real estate.

How do you make an everyday memorial, one that busy people will find meaningful and not morbid? One that's accessible, without risk of becoming commonplace? How does one person make a difference, helping to keep alive the memory of a friend, buddy, or family member?

Naming places and things, after all, takes some amount of collective time, effort, and money—people working together as towns, neighborhoods, or non-profit groups. That said, streets, schools, buildings, parks, and trails are all good venues for commemorating individual soldiers, units, or even veterans in general. Personally, I'd much rather see the names of public spaces evoke themes of duty and service, rather than have them sold to the highest bidder.

And, as mentioned in previous Red Bull Rising posts, towns and groups can also commemorate fallen soldiers with street banners and billboards.

So, where does that leave the rest of us, acting as individuals?

One of my old Army buddies makes a practice of posting via social media the names, ages, and of those soldiers who were killed during his unit's deployment to Iraq. Another ensures his unit's Facebook page commemorates the anniversary dates of those killed.

And I've taken to subscribing (by "liking") the Facebook pages of entities such as Iowa Remembers Inc., which regularly commemorates those Iowans who have been killed in service to their country. Here's a typical entry: "Remembering an Iowa Hero ... Army Sgt. Brent Maher, 31, Honey Creek, Iowa - 4/11/11. He is not forgotten."

That's short, sweet, to the point. It's almost "name, rank, and serial number," except for the little touches, like dates and hometowns. And "he is not forgotten" gets me everytime.

Here are some other ways that people can help commemorate their friends, family, co-workers, and others killed in service to their country:
  • Wear a photo button or commemorative bracelet naming a fallen soldiers. Or, if the soldier is an immediate family member, wear a gold star lapel pin. When people ask about what you're wearing, be prepared with a short answer or story about your soldier.
  • Place an automotive window decal on your personal vehicle, identifying a fallen soldier.
  • Post a Facebook cover photo depicting a fallen soldier.
  • Post a Facebook status, photo, or other social media update with the soldier's name and date of death.
The best memorials aren't designed to make people feel bad or guilty, but to remember and celebrate a life. What other 21st century ways have you seen to commemorate fallen soldiers, friends, and family? What can you do to help keep their memories alive?

Examples of Facebook cover photos courtesy of Chelsey Bliss (for Spc. Donald Nichols) and Amanda Justice (for Staff Sgt. James Justice).

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