When you’re raised in a tiny Midwestern town, as I was, Memorial Day is mostly about fireworks and barbecues and picnics and parades. It’s about taking that first swim with your best friend - in water that’s at least five degrees too cold – and then racing from the pool, on a bicycle, to wait in line with all the other kids for ice cream sandwiches from a Good Humor truck. Of course, the ice cream melts faster than you can consume it, and soon you’re sporting that telltale vanilla mustache. You’ve never been happier, because this pool-to-ice cream ritual always marks the official start of summer.
Yet as I look back, there was nothing particularly “Memorial” about any of it.
Even though my grandfather, Carl Dantzler, served in the U.S. Army’s Air Corp during World War II, as a young teen I failed to connect the dots between Memorial Day and soldiers/wars/disabilities/deaths.
Having trained for the Army in East Boston, my grandfather occasionally made references to his military days during family gatherings, but the chapters he shared with me were watered down..., and kiddie-sized as well. Understandably, I suppose. It wasn’t until Christmas many years later, when my uncle Evan came home from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, that I truly understood how hard others have sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy every day.
Through my work at Spaulding, I have met a number of patients who fought very bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to return home with permanent disabilities. The conversations we’ve shared have given me an entirely new perspective on the unique physical and emotional challenges faced by our veterans - and their families - as they try to rebuild their civilian lives.
Spaulding has the distinct honor of serving as one of only two private hospitals in the country to work in close collaboration with the Department of Defense on developing new methods of treatment for battlefield injuries that you can easily see, such as amputated limbs, as well as combat wounds that are “invisible” to the naked eye: traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder (or “PTSD”). Through our collaboration with the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital on the Home Base Program, Spaulding provides rehabilitative care to many brave veterans, helping them recover from their initial injuries, and later equipping them with new tools so that they can return to their families and resume fulfilling lives.
This year there’s a new movement afoot to expand America’s thinking about Memorial Day. The notion is to express our gratitude to all servicemen and women, whether they are active-duty or retired, who have put their lives on the line for our country. Spaulding certainly honors this effort. As a teaching hospital, we resolve to do our part by continuing to develop new technologies and models of treatment to meet the unique needs of all those who have been injured in combat.
As for me, I’m planning to hit the pause button on Monday’s hoopla, at least long enough to reflect back on some of the heroic patients I have met, and to telephone my grandfather Carl. Carl is 89 now, frail, and living in Lincoln, Nebraska. I will ask him deeper questions about his military service, the Greatest Generation, and the GI Bill. I want to learn more about the friends he lost during World War II. Hopefully he will share some old memories.