Kevin Jackson today will be doing more than grilling out at his home in Cherokee to recognize Memorial Day.
The 27-year-old Army Reserve specialist and veteran of the war in Afghanistan plans to visit the graves of Sgt. Joe Ray and Sgt. Kevin Akins. Both men served with him in the 391st Combat Engineers. They were killed in action in March 2006.
“They paid the ultimate sacrifice,” said the father of two.
While Americans enjoy time with family and friends during the traditional kick off to summer, about 160,000 U.S. soldiers are in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As they return, many will bridge a gap between an aging veteran population and a generation of people who knew of war mostly through movies.
Before this war, a common grumbling around American Legion halls and other spots where veterans gathered was that the young didn’t fully understand the wartime sacrifices made by their grandfathers and great grandfathers.
But Jackson, like many of the nation’s youngest veterans, has a new take on what the holiday means. After serving in combat, he has a personal connection.
Since the war on terror started, almost 4,000 soldiers have died. Six soldiers from Western North Carolina units have been killed since 2003 — four of those were with Jackson’s Army Reserve group.
“Young people tend to forget about the soldiers over there fighting and doing their jobs,” he said. “They forget once everything is said and done. And we are asking society just not to forget what we have fought for.”
United by war
Memorial Day started as a day to remember the men who died in the Civil War. After World War I, it was expanded to include soldiers who died in all wars or any military action.
Today, 900 soldiers from the North Carolina National Guard are in Iraq.
Jackson joined the service in 2003, even though the war on terror had started.
“I felt the need to serve my country because of what was going on,” he said.
He wanted to give back to the U.S. and his people in Cherokee. He said the war has changed him. Readjusting to society has been hard sometimes.
Jackson worked in mine clearing and removing improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. It can be one of the most dangerous jobs in the military.
He said it was hard to move from that kind of daily stress to life back in Cherokee. He’s now studying business management at Montreat College.
Canton resident Jim Howell, who served in the Air Force in Vietnam years before Jackson was born, said veterans across generations share that same feeling.
The rise of American Legion clubs and Veterans of Foreign Wars groups after World War II and Korea kept soldiers a close-knit community even after the battles ended. The popularity of these organizations continued to some extent into the Vietnam War era.
Most local American Legion officials say they see few young veterans joining. Family commitments, work and education goals may have something to do with the trend.
But Howell said veterans are connected, even if they don’t meet at the Legion Hall or the V, as many called the VFW.
“It is the same,” he said. “Anybody that has to go through boot camp — you get the message pretty quick. It is patriotism. And they really instill that into you. It is something that you’ll have the rest of your life.”
Pass the meaning down
Jackson and Howell, although separated by decades and veterans of two very different wars, feel the same about the people they served with.
“I think about them a lot,” Jackson said. “That is brotherhood. I think it is a strong bond.”
And that’s part of the message of Memorial Day: War is universal, and the men and women who fought and died should be honored and respected for their sacrifice.
John Waltz is the communications officer for the Iraq War Veterans Organization. The California-based group helps veterans with a wide range of needs, including money to cover expenses and mental health counseling. It was started by Russell K. Terry just days after the Iraq invasion.
Waltz served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the men and women he served with have a respect for the meaning of the day.
“All of the soldiers and veterans of this war are going to have a respect for Memorial Day,” he said. “We do have a respect for all our veterans that have come before us. For us, Memorial Day is definitely a solemn day.”
That is something Patty White, training coordinator of Boy Scout Troop 73 in Arden, hopes to pass down to her 10-year-old son and his troop.
On Saturday, the 10 members of the troop decorated the graves of veterans at Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in Candler with flags.
The newly formed troop started the tradition last year. This year, they will have a Korean War veteran as a speaker to offer a better perspective on why Memorial Day is important.
White said a lot of the families of the troop members are staying in town so that their sons can help decorate the graves.
She and her husband and troop Scoutmaster John White have tried to instill the meaning of Memorial Day in their son.
“There are so many people who have given their time, their lives to go and fight in wars for us and protect our country,” she said. “We taught him that even though the word is freedom, it is not free. And these people have paid dearly. Their families have paid dearly. They have lost loved ones.”