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Veterans Reflect On Wars Then And Now As They Place Flags At Mass. National Cemetery

American flags mark the graves of veterans at Massachusetts National Cemetery during a past Operation Flags for Vets. (Casey Ashlock)
American flags mark the graves of veterans at Massachusetts National Cemetery during a past Operation Flags for Vets. (Casey Ashlock)

When I went to Camp Pendleton last year for the 10-year reunion of Marines who fought in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, one of them told me: "I know how to win a battle, I don't know how to win a war."

That makes sense. Marines and others who we send into combat don't get a choice of which war they fight in. They receive their orders. They go into battle.

Some don't return.

That's the perspective veterans bring to the current debate over what do about ISIS in Iraq and Syria as the extremist group gains ground in both countries. There were many veterans at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod Saturday. They came to help place flags on the more than 60,000 graves there for Memorial Day, the day set aside to remember those killed in war.

They came with memories of their own service, and the sacrifice some of their friends made. They also came with thoughts about countering ISIS.

Should the United States get more involved? Should more troops be sent into the fight?

For the most part, the veterans I posed that question to said it's up to the politicians to make those decisions. That's what they're elected to do.

But it's also tough for them to watch what's happening now, especially in Iraq.

"A lot of ground's been lost since we started in '03," said Ken Gidney, who served in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. "And you know ISIS is definitely something to be reckoned with, dealt with, and I don't see anything changing anytime soon. And it's sad for the last 10 years, guys have been giving their lives protecting places like Ramadi and Fallujah, and ISIS has been taking it over.

"I don't want to get into politics. But something's got to be done and I don't think America should take the burden of it all. Look around you. We've shared the burden of that for 100 years."

Sharing the burden. That's something that really doesn't happen anymore, according to another veteran I spoke with Saturday.

"I think this country has made a really big demand on their professional service," said John Shoukimas, who fought in Vietnam. "And as much as none of us ever wanted to get drafted, at least the people in this country had some share in what was happening. Now they're asking people to do way more than they should have ever asked them."

"Can you imagine what it must be like to do 10 tours of duty where your friends are constantly being blown up and you're in danger of dying every minute?"

John Shoukimas

"Can you imagine what it must be like to do 10 tours of duty where your friends are constantly being blown up and you're in danger of dying every minute?" asked Shoukimas.

I've been going to the Massachusetts National Cemetery before Memorial Day for the last four years. Hundreds of volunteers fan out across the rolling green acres to place the flags on the graves. The flags are planted just behind the stones, right in the center above the name of the deceased. Volunteers use screwdrivers to make the holes.

As I was on my way out of the cemetery, I met a woman named Jane Zulkiewicz. She was alone and she clutched an arm full of flags. I asked her why she had come to help.

"I came because my father, who was a World War II vet, just passed a couple of months ago," she told me. "He was at the soldiers' home in Holyoke, and I was really enlightened to all the vets and their stories. It's just an incredible amount of joy that my dad brought me, and he's no longer here and I just wanted to respect him and all the other vets today."

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