Though Memorial Day is often used as an excuse for weekend barbecues and used car sales, it is meant to be a day to reflect on those who died in service to this country.
For those serving in the armed forces, and the many veterans who preceded them, it’s a reflection that many must go through every day.
Even almost seven decades later, Harlan Olson hasn’t forgotten Korea. Serving in the U.S. Navy aboard the battleships Missouri and New Jersey, Olson said what he most remembers is the cold — coldest he’d ever been, and as a North Dakota native who worked in Alaska after the war, he said he knows a thing or two about the cold.
After the cold, the thing you never forget is the way your gut sinks after losing somebody.
“One of the guys we lost, he was also from North Dakota, lost him during night operations. I never even learned what happened to him,” Olson said. “When it came, it was always sudden like that, and you never forget moments like that — good ones too, like I had a graduating class of nine people, and I ran into three of them on shore leave in Japan. The military was always funny that way.”
For Kenneth Tarantole, who served in the Navy during Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War, many of the sailors who died while he was in service weren’t killed in combat, but as a result of accidents aboard the ship.
“When you’re on a ship, especially something the size of a carrier, there are a lot of inherent dangers,” Tarantole said. “One of my guys, Spence, got trapped in a void tank, ran out of oxygen and suffocated. Another guy during Desert Storm went over the side of the ship during the middle of the night — we were in rough seas — and we never found him.”
In recent years, Memorial Day also has taken on another significance for Tarantole: Seeing first hand as the men who survived the wars come home, only to start dying over the years.
“I got other shipmates who have since passed away. Bobby Scott served on riverboats in Vietnam, served another 20 years, and then died 30 days after retirement. Or my commanding officer who I served under, I just found out last week he’s in hospice care,” Tarantole said. “I remember all these guys vividly, and it’s definitely struck me that even the guys who made it home won’t be here forever, but those bonds made in uniform, that brotherhood, they’re forever.”
Another Navy veteran, Mary Van Swol, who deployed twice aboard the USS Enterprise, said she also lost three sailors during her service, not to accidents, but to what’s quickly becoming one of the fastest killers of service members and veterans: suicide.
“That first deployment was rough. We had the Chief of Naval Operations come aboard our boat, and as bad as deployment was, the leadership was worse,” Van Swol said. “I was the one who found the first one after he’d hung himself. It’s something you never forget.”
Spending his first Memorial Day out of uniform since he retired last year is Steven Kellam, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant. Between 1997 and 2018, Kellam deployed overseas five times and says he lost a couple of friends on each one.
“I deployed five times during my service, once to Kosovo, three times to Iraq, once to Afghanistan, and there are a lot of guys who I served with, grew up with, who aren’t here today,” Kellam said. “I had a friend of mine named Spivey who was killed when the Chinook he was on crashed in a sandstorm in 2005. Went to his funeral. I think about him a lot to this day.”
Despite having served in different wars, different branches of service and often having done so decades apart, the four of them had a simple request of everyone this weekend: Remember us.
“When you’re overseas, thousands of miles from home, you think about your family and the people back home, worry if they’re thinking of you too, and that support can sometimes make all the difference in the world,” Kellam said. “All I ask of everyone this weekend, take a moment or two to think about the guys overseas, and especially all the guys who never came back home.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.