The author of this letter grew up in Wilton and graduated from Wilton High School as a member of the Class of 2003.

To the Editor:

I always see a great deal of hang-wringing about the “true” meaning of Memorial Day this time of year, ie: do we honor sacrifice or do we celebrate service? Is it appropriate to have a BBQ? What’s the established ruling on eating pancakes in a group setting? As a military veteran myself, the proper observance of the holiday seems even more critical, yet just as inscrutable. So, I propose that we can fulfill both meanings (and I admit this needs work) by putting the “memory” back in Memorial Day.

I joined the Navy in 2009, and served for four years in Japan. During that time I had the good fortune to visit India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and the Philippines – and of course experience the culinary wonders and libations of Japan. To this day, when people thank me for my service, I always feel kind of weird about it because really I should be thanking them for dutifully paying taxes and helping to fund “Emily’s Beers of Southeast Asia Tour.” I had it pretty easy.

Then I remember participating in real world strategic operations, slogging through joint tactical exercises with our allies in the Pacific (designed specifically to upset Kim Jong Un if you ask Kim Jong Un), and providing humanitarian aid after Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami – and I feel a little less awkward about the unsolicited “Thank You’s.”

All of that stuff was important, and I’m really proud that I was able to be right in the middle of it for four years. What I’m most proud of though is the impact I had on many of the junior sailors I stood watch with during that period. I’m not talking about formally mentoring anyone here – I barely knew what I was doing myself half the time, but when you stand watch with someone for five hours from 0200 – 0700 in the morning, you tend to get to talking about REALLY random stuff. Or so I thought.

When I was preparing to transition back into the civilian workforce in 2013, a lot of people came up to me and told me things like “Hey, I really appreciated when you told me XX that time during watch, it helped me figure out YY” or “Thanks for talking me through XX situation, your advice really helped me out with YY result.”

In making small-talk in the wee hours of the morning for four years apparently I was helping people? Who knew? They definitely shouldn’t have been taking life advice from me, I’m 30 years old and still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. However, these shared experiences and crazy conversations in the far corners of the world are the most meaningful outcome of my military career, and if you asked me about my service, I would tell you about the people I served with.

We tend to create neat buckets within our collective historical memory based on periods of service – The Greatest Generation, or the Forgotten Vietnam Era – and classify experiences broadly based on where and when people served, and how they were perceived at home. However, I would be willing to bet that if you asked ANY of the veterans marching in Monday’s parade how they classify their service they would ALL speak warmly about the people they served with, and how much they relied on their camaraderie (and probably some of the shenanigans they got into on liberty too if you’re lucky).

So ask. Seriously. I mean, you can say “Thank You” first, but ask some of the men and women marching about their service in the military and it will be the best form of gratitude and appreciation for sacrifice you can show.

Some of what they tell you will be juicy, some of it will seem terrible, and some of it will probably make no sense to you at all as a civilian (like eating by the numbers in boot camp – you know, what nevermind). History will cover the highlights of our recent conflicts, but I would hate for my years of service in 7th Fleet to be boiled down to “North Korea launched some fake weather satellites. ” This is where the value of a holiday like Memorial Day comes in – it gives all of us an opportunity to fill in the gaps of the historical timeline with details that would otherwise be lost, and it gives veterans such as myself the chance to reflect, share and build a living memory (I hope) on behalf of those who can’t.

Respectfully,

LT Emily Williams, USNR