When I was in Iraq, it finally hit me the true meaning of Memorial Day. It shouldn’t have taken me thirteen years in service to get it, but for whatever reason, it did. Since that Memorial Day, when the chow hall of FOB Marez was decorated with the names of the fallen and American flags, Memorial Day has been a sobering reminder of the men and women who have gone before us.

When I was in 11th grade, my band took a trip to Washington DC. I was a junior in high school who thought she knew way more than the adults around her (shocking I know but bear with me). I was a typical bitchy teenager who chafed around adults left and right. One of our stops was at the Washington Mall. It’s a huge place, full of monuments and memorials. I remember the news when they’d finally decided on a design. I grew up in the post Vietnam world, when people still talked about it on the news but I didn’t understand. Not really.

I didn’t understand how people could spit on our soldiers. I couldn’t fathom how people who didn’t fight could have called our soldiers babykillers. When Somalia and the Battle of Mogadishu broke on the news, I remember mumbling something to the effect of go get em boys. I remember my mom asked how I could say go get em when I didn’t believe we should have been there in the first place. It was something that stuck with me. At that point in my life, a freshman in high school, I didn’t yet realize that my parents had been hippies, my father marching in the Civil Rights movement.

I knew on some level that our soldiers were special but I never saw myself as one. I’d briefly entertained the notion of becoming a fighter pilot (thank you Top Gun and Iron Eagle) but that idea quickly fell out of favor when I realized how hard it was to get into the Air Force Academy. But in my junior year in high school, on that field trip to Washington DC, something happened. Maybe it was the spark that landed me where I am today. I don’t know.

But I remember walking up to the Vietnam Wall. I remember my throat clenching tight, my eyes burning. I was sixteen. I didn’t have a clue why I felt this way. My father didn’t have any brothers that died there. My mom only had sisters. I knew no one on that wall but the tears burned until they spilled down my cheeks. I couldn’t explain it then and I can’t explain it now. What was it about the names on that wall, the sadness that clutched the air around it that made a cocky high school junior break down and cry?

Fast forward six years. Its 2000 and I’m now a staff sergeant in the Army. I’m at Fort Gordon for what was then known as BNCOC (prounounced b-noc) Basic Non Commissioned Officer Course. My platoon was tasked to be escorts for the Moving Wall, a traveling mock up of the VietNam Wall that moved around the country, bringing the memorial to those who could never travel to DC to see the real thing. I remember escorting a little lady to her son’s name. I didn’t cry that time, but the emotion was just as strong. I listened as she talked about her son, about what he’d wanted to be when he grew up. And at the end, all I could do was thank her for her families sacrifice.

The words felt hollow. Empty. How could something so trivial mean anything to this woman who’d lost a child to a war the nation still argued over, let alone accepted?

I don’t know how much these moment changed my point of view but I remember standing in the chow hall in Mosul, doing my best not to bawl like a baby in front of my husband and his soldiers. I couldn’t explain it. All I know is that memorializing the fallen, a group that now holds the names of close friends and former soldiers, is hard. There are no words that can explain the tightness in my chest or the tears that fall automatically whenever I walk up to the 1st Cav Memorial. I don’t know that Memorial Day will always have this impact on me.

But I think memorials always will. For now, I avoid them because I don’t like to unlock the box where I keep all that relentless emotion locked away. I’ve spent this Memorial Day avoiding the memorials. Maybe its because I’ve recently lost a good friend that I’ve avoided it. Maybe its because the fear that maybe I’ll become one of those Gold Star families because my husband is back at war for a 4th time. I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t make me a bad soldier or a selfish person. The memorials will be there but for now, I won’t be.

And maybe some day, I’ll be able to attend one without feeling like a can’t breathe. In the mean time, I’ll write about it, then tuck it back away to get back on with life. Because I think it was Voltaire who said in Candide, we must tend our gardens. I my garden is my soldiers, my kids and my books.