May 24, 2019

A Day of Reflection

Originally published by The Salem News.

There was a time when many Americans approached Memorial Day weekend with some degree of dread, knowing it would bring back painful memories of loved ones lost.

Today, most of us look forward to this long weekend with excitement — we celebrate the unofficial start of summer.

But, among the small and decreasing percentage of Americans who serve, depression and anxiety often increase this weekend.

Memorial Day is when Americans are supposed to evaluate war’s true, human cost. For those of us who experienced it firsthand, it’s very personal. And it is a cost many of us keep paying long after we come home and our friends do not.

As I’m reflecting this weekend on the brave Americans we’ve lost, especially in our ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’m also thinking about people like my friend James Hassell, who didn’t die in Iraq but died because of it.

James was in my platoon during my second tour in Iraq. He saw some of the toughest fighting of the war to date in the Battle of Najaf. One day from 2004 stands out in particular.

Our platoon was pinned down in a building when one of my men, Ryan from Vermont, was hit with a grenade.

Ryan’s wounds looked bad on the outside. His internal bleeding was worse. James recognized that someone needed to act. Without hesitating, he put Ryan on his back and carried him through 60 yards of machine gun fire to an area safe enough to evacuate Ryan.

James saved Ryan’s life, at great risk to his own.

A couple years later, as James started a new chapter in his life, a reporter with the Orange County Register interviewed him about returning home from war. He told the reporter: “All I want to do is live the American dream that I fought so hard to protect. All I want is a little bit of normal life.”

He wanted to continue serving too. He went to school, got a degree in nursing, and landed a great job working in an emergency room. He married and had a daughter.

As he built a new life for himself outside of the Marines, James experienced post-traumatic stress. Naturally, he went to the VA for help. But instead of giving him the counseling he requested, they just gave James medication — so much medication that, just by taking the pills he was prescribed, James died of a heart attack. He was 30 years old.

James is an American hero, and I’m thinking of him today. He’s one of my personal heroes, and he was my friend.

James is also on my mind because our country needs to remember that even those who make it home from war can die because of it.

James’ death was not a suicide, but every day in this country suicide kills 20 veterans.

Opioids are taking veterans’ lives too: Veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to die from an accidental opioid overdose in this scourge that has killed 6,000 of our state’s residents in the last three years.

We must honor these lives today, too.

Memorial Day is not a day for calls to action or policy debates, so I won’t make one here beyond this: Spend time with your family. Enjoy the weather. Light up the grill or watch the Sox game — that’s how James would have wanted us to honor him.

Remember also to pause and reflect upon the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Try to learn their names and their stories so that their sacrifices are not forgotten.

And come tomorrow, let’s honor those we lost by recommitting ourselves to making sure we don’t lose anyone else. Because the wounds of war are not just the ones we can see, and every veteran deserves a country that fights as hard for them as they did for us.