Honoring a Soldier and Friend on this Memorial Day
Three years ago, I wrote a little essay to give tribute to a soldier friend on the occasion of Memorial Day commemorations . As the United States winds down the wars that it has been engaged in during the last decade, our country is facing a massive return of our military women and men. I find that the sentiments I expressed in this essay three years ago is ever more relevant at this time - perhaps acutely more so - and I decided to share with our churches this very personal note because many of our churches have soldiers and their families in their congregations.
In Memoriam, Michael R. Bertiz
Memorial Day in the United States is a hallowed holiday set aside to honor her soldiers who died in battle. But there are many soldiers who also died off the battle field, after they returned home, fighting enemies perhaps more dangerous than those they met on the battlefield. Many soldiers return from wars not only with with physical wounds, but many return also broken in mind and soul. These enemies perhaps are more dangerous than those they met on the battlefield because they come from within. The news reports this morning are understandably dominated by reports and conversations around the men and women of or military. One report caught me more than any other - that the suicide rate for returning veterans has increased 65% just in the last 2 1/2 years.
Michael was my high school friend and classmate from our days in the Philippines. From that very young age, he already was destined for the miitary service. In the Philippines, military training is compulsory for all males beginning in high school. I became a Guidon Bearer in those days, it was not a rank but a "perk" given out by officer friends like Mike. But Michael was special - he had the dignity and bearing of a soldier about him. One can tell easily that he loved what he was doing. We lost contact and sight of each other after graduation from high school because I went to another school for college in another city. But I heard that Michael later on became a distinguished ROTC officer in college - not a surprise to me at all. And I was not surprised as well that later on I found out that he proceeded to the country's elite military officer school, the Philippine Military Academy.
I came to the US in 1979 for seminary, and have become a naturalized US citizen since. About two years ago, sometime in 2009, through the informal network of my high school alumnae in the US I received word that Michael was in Seattle, WA. But the news was sad. Michael apparently had enliisted in the US military and served several tours of active combat duty in Iraq. He had come home not only with PTSD, but mentally ill and homeless. On April 15, 2010 one of our classmates in Seatlle spotted an obituary on Michael. It was a trite statement, no emotions about it:
"Michael was born on April 23, 1955 and passed away on Thursday, April 15, 2010. Michael was last known to be living in Seattle, Washington.”
A dignified, bright, proud, gifted career military man, died alone on the streets - a vagabond, jobless, homeless, poor and infirm. Like all of our women and men in the military service, Michael served his adopted country proudly and faithfully. Our war veterans come home from the battlefield needing rehabilitation for - and help to find a job in - civilian life. But many come home not finding the same support system that they had on the battlefield. In battle, they had friends they relied on who they knew would even give their lives to protect them.
I wish Michael had that support when he returned home. It was much too late when some of our high school classmates here in the US knew of his presence in Seattle. Many organizations now have formed to become advocates for our veterans, to assist them. But much - so much - still needs to be done. Our legislators write the laws of the land. We have seen them exercise great creativity in legislating laws to serve their own interests. The least that they can do is be just as creative in paving the legislative way for our returning veterans so that they come home to systematic adequate health and spiritual care, job training and placement.
We spend the day today to esteem our soldiers who died in battle. Let us not forget those who died off the battlefield, who survived and repelled the enemy from the outside, but did not survive the enemy from within. If only the heights to which we extol their bravery and love of country, would match the way we care for them when - and if - they return broken not only in body, but in mind and spirit. It is there that we really honor their service.