My lola grew up in the Philippines and experienced World War II first hand, along with her parents, numerous siblings, and their live-in caretakers, or yayas. She often tells the terrifying story of when her village was under aerial attack. Because the bombing was focused on the residential areas, she and the other members of her household fled by moonlight to the nearby farming villages that were mostly made up of flooded rice paddies. In the rush to escape the attacks, no provisions were taken with them and the youngest children, who were only infants, were simply swaddled in blankets and carried in the arms of the yayas. When the group reached a hiding place, away from the lights of the village, my lola’s father conducted a head count. Because of the frantic nature of the escape, the adrenaline and fear, and the numerous blankets, one of the yayas had not realized that somewhere along the escape route she had dropped my grandmother’s youngest sister. In a fit of terror, the entire family searched for the child in the rice patty and amazingly she was found and recovered, unharmed. My lola says that this was an act of god; the rice patties are soaked in at least a foot of water and had the baby fallen face down, she would have drowned.
Even though my grandmother tells this story as a playful anecdote and the audience is always satisfied with the happy ending, she may use the telling of the story as a way to cope with the terror that she faced as a child. However, even though I can imagine how terrible it must have been to be this close to war, the truth is I have no idea how haunting it must actually be. I, like other Americans in my generation, have always had the commodity of never experiencing war firsthand. I have never had to live in constant fear questioning if today is the day that someone I love could be taken away from me, if today is my own last day. I grew up in the peaceful end of the millennium where any given kid’s biggest worry was if they had a good set of Pokemon cards. I grew up not thinking about war, not worrying about our country, and, similarly, not knowing what patriotism was because I never had a direct need to feel it.
When I was younger, my idea of patriotism was walking out to the center of Park Ridge, NJ and watching the annual Memorial Day parade. I would cheer as men in old cars wearing pointy hats drove by hoping they would throw me candy. If I was really lucky, one of them might stop their car, walk over to me and hand me a tiny American flag, which I would wave with vigor. On the walk home from the parade, my dad was usually quietly reflecting on things that I didn’t understand. For me, the Memorial Day parade was the official beginning of summer, the marker of the day when my family first ate barbequed hot dogs on our deck, and the only time besides Halloween when a kid could get candy for free. For my Dad, the Memorial Day parade was a reminder his father, a Czechoslovakian immigrant who had served in World War II as a supply sergeant. My paternal grandfather, like my maternal grandmother, experienced war firsthand. Having served in Pearl Harbor, my Pop-pop’s life was forever changed and the soot of his wartime memories lingered in the air of my father’s childhood. My Pop-pop died before I had a chance to meet him and my father now carries the memory of his dad and the war’s affect on him in silence, protecting my lighthearted childhood from its weight.
Trips to these parades usually included my parents, my three siblings, and myself; it was a whole family affair. Soon though, everyone’s priorities shifted: my mom would spend this day with her parents who were growing elderly, my two older siblings would work as lifeguards on Memorial Day which was the first day our municipal pool opened, and my younger sister too soon grew out of the appeal of free candy. For my dad and I, though, trips to the center of town to watch the parade continued. I have always been a sentimental person and perhaps I continued going with my father because the parade was a part of my childhood that I was not ready to let go of. On the other hand, I felt that these trips to the parade were bigger than my own agenda as a teenager and that they had to continue for some reason unbeknownst to me. I don’t know what drew me continually back to the event, but I still went in hopes that I would someday feel what my father felt.
I wasn’t alone in my little blasé world, as it seems that everyone in my generation really knew nothing about war until 2001. I was in fourth grade on September 11th and when I got called into the school auditorium to “watch the news,” I had no idea what was going on. The one thing I remember about that morning was being completely excited with the fact that the fourth graders were being grouped with the fifth through eighth graders; my class was included in an upperclassmen assembly! Finally, our definitive maturity was being acknowledged. Sitting in the auditorium, watching footage of the towers squat down on top of themselves in unimaginable clouds of dust on a 42-inch boob tube, I didn’t stop to realize that the footage was live, that this was actually happening. I busied myself trying to locate my brother’s head in the sea of sixth graders sitting indian-style on the floor. If I could find him, I could see how he was acting, and then I would know how to act.
I wasn’t concerned with issues of patriotism until eight years later when a quiet mumbling started going around my family about how my cousin Joey got deployed to Afghanistan. I was supportive, knowing that he always wanted to serve our country, but I didn’t think too much of it. As a teenager, my initial response was thinking that it was cool that Joey was living his own dream. I didn’t stop to think that his life was in danger. At the time, no one stops to say, “He might lose both his legs. He might be haunted by the experience forever. He might die.” Instead, everyone supports it. So, I supported it, but I didn’t make time to call and wish him luck. Before leaving the country, Joey changed his Facebook profile to include his mailing address in Afghanistan adding that he “would love a care package or a little piece of home.” I took down this address on a piece of paper and put it on my desk, taking a mental note to put something together for him and send it over.
I filled out college applications, I went to prom, I played volleyball games, I watched movies, and that address sat on my desk collecting dust. But I was definitely going to put something together for Joe, as soon as I got the chance. I just needed to squeeze it between my AP tests, birthday parties, family vacations, trips to the mall, track meets, hookups, and student council meetings. But it was definitely, like, number three on my to-do list.
And then, one warm June night after a trip to Shop-Rite with my mom to prepare for the next day’s trip to Sandy Hook, my dad was sitting on the stoop as we pulled up the driveway. As we got out of the car he quietly said, “My sister called.” She never calls. “Joey was killed in Afghanistan today.” I have never seen my mom let her emotions take her as much as they did in the split second after those words. She broke down sobbing on the driveway and held the railing on the stoop to keep herself upright. Her gasps for air were simultaneously choking, incomplete questions like, “Why?” and “How?” I didn’t know what to think, what to say, or how to act. I was simply stunned. I took the groceries out of the trunk of the car, went up to my room, checked on my younger sister, and fell asleep safely in my own warm bed. And the next day, I went to the beach.
Life went on, but with silences where I normally would have spoken, glassy eyes, and confusion. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I never had to care before. I never even knew before. Before. I couldn’t even admit it: Joey’s death. Soon, we got news that Joey’s funeral would be the same day as my senior prom. Without thinking, I called the boy from Texas who had a flight to New Jersey just to spend a weekend with the reigning prom queen. I told him that we wouldn’t be going to prom, but to still bring his suit, because we’d be going to a funeral. I needed to go to the funeral even though my parents said I wasn’t obligated to. I owed this much to the cousin I hardly knew, Joseph Theinert. I owed him anything I could give him. I owed him, because now, he was gone. I needed to repay him for all he had somehow given up for me. Needless to say, at this point, the paper with the scrawled address had seemingly decomposed into thin air because it was nowhere to be found.
So my family packed into our mini van and drove out to Shelter Island, NY, a small-town place we usually went to for graduations, barbeques, and days at the beach. This time though, the car ride was devoid of laughter and anticipation. On the island, every place of business had a “Remember Joey” sign in the window and every flag flew at a depressing and ominous half-mast. The community came together to mourn Joey’s passing. It was a terrible way for me to feel true patriotism for the first time.
Every soul on the island was at the wake. For whatever reason, I had this innate and primal need to touch the coffin but I didn’t think I was allowed. I didn’t think I deserved to. Why should I get to be that close to the lieutenant who laid down atop an improvised explosive device to save the lives of his squadron while sacrificing his own? When my dad laid his hand on the coffin and gave it two pats before walking away, like he used to pat Joey on the back, I took it as tacit permission to be intimate with my cousin for what was, perhaps, the first time. I laid my hand on the cold, smooth mahogany and felt satisfaction for the only time that entire weekend.
The funeral was held the next day in a tent behind the Shelter Island School, which served kindergarten through 12th grade. I cried during the eulogies that Joey’s brothers gave. I cried as the priest spoke of Joey’s final resting place. I cried and everyone else cried and I wasn’t sure if I was crying because I felt sad or because I felt guilty. Everyone filed out, got into their cars, and followed the hearse to Joey’s final resting place. People from the community stepped out of their homes and businesses to line the course of the funeral procession, solemnly saluting, blowing kisses, and nodding their heads at the hearse. At the cemetery everyone stood under another tent and listened to some final prayers and the 21-gun salute. I didn’t cry but I held my father’s hand as he did. I held his hand as he tried to control the shaking of his shoulders as tears turned into quiet sobs. This was the only time I have ever seen my father cry, and it was appropriate because he was so exposed to the effects of war, his life so touched and marked by them. All I could do was squeeze his hand and support him in something that I was so new to me, something that I was only beginning to understand.
I still don’t know the ins and outs of politics; I can’t name many people besides our president and the governor of my home state. But I can say that, because of Joey’s death, I have started to think more about our country as a whole and our involvement and influence in the world. I formed my first political opinion at a time when it seemed everyone should be mourning the loss of Joey, a soldier who fought not only for himself but also for freedom and the country that he loved. I was appalled to learn in retrospect that there were protesters at Joey’s funeral. The small group of people was armed with picket signs saying things like, “Dead soldiers go straight to hell,” arguing that the U.S. troops were merciless killers of innocent people. In a personal journal that was found among Joey’s personal belongings, he had written “There is nothing glorious about war, but I will go to it and keep the people I love away from it.” How could the protesters believe that someone with that life goal would go “straight to hell?” The protesters were kept away from the immediate family—a kindness that the people of Shelter Island ensured. These people did not know Joey, did not know anyone in the family, were not locals, and had no physical or emotional attachment to the war besides being against it. Who were they to even be on the island?
Looking back on the situation, I think it would be fair to say that there is a chance I might have agreed (though in a less disrespectful way) with the argument of these protesters before Joey’s death. I don’t support the U.S. decision to invade Iraq or to fight in Afghanistan. In general, I don’t support fighting or war if it isn’t absolutely necessary. But knowing Joey and having my first bitter taste of loss due to war, whether it be a death or a change in personality, I couldn’t believe how insensitive and almost inhuman it was for the protesters to fight for their cause at the funeral of a 24-year-old, cousin, and friend. Regardless of how he died, shouldn’t everyone find this untimely death tragic? In the end, I learned many things from Joey’s death: to act before it is to late, never to take a single day for granted, and to support your countrymen through thick and thin. If I could change things now I would have called Joey before he went overseas, I would have sent him a care package each month he was away. But, like I said, no one acts with the expectation that someone will die. I tell people now that I don’t support the war, but I definitely support the troops. Like Joey had written, the war isn’t glorious but we should still appreciate the people who keep it out of our back yards. This confuses some of my friends who believe supporting the troops is synonymous with supporting the war. I don’t blame them. It took a major event in my life to open my eyes to my beliefs about the war, about our country, and about patriotism. Although I wish I could have began to see these things for all that they’re worth without the death of my cousin, I am grateful that I can now appreciate others’ sacrifices in a way I couldn’t before and appreciate each day and each freedom in a way that I never would have otherwise. I can now begin to understand why my grandmother still won’t eat Japanese food, why my grandfather’s service in WWII effectively changed the man that he was, and why September 11th is still a biting memory to many who were directly affected. I would never wish tragic events upon others, but I need to tell Joey’s story because I believe that my generation must take of their rose-tinted glasses and learn to see.