Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby, a retired rear admiral in the US Navy, was a spokesman for both the State and Defense Departments in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The coronavirus may forge a closer and more healthy relationship between the American people and their military.
I’m not talking about all the ways in which our troops have supported the government’s response. From hospital ships and mobile medical units to National Guard call-ups and the delivery of much-needed equipment, the US military continues to pitch in.
Everyone sees that; everyone (hopefully) appreciates that.
I’m talking about the effects of isolation and fear and guilt and grief. I’m talking about the kinds of feelings — the kind of trauma — that military families have been grappling with since the attacks of 9/11, and that now so many of their fellow Americans are experiencing for themselves as they come to grips with life and death during a pandemic.
“They’re scared. And I lived with that myself,” Coleen Bowman told me. “There’s a constant fear that the worst is inevitable, and this anticipatory grief, well, that’s what I felt when my husband went off to war, and that’s what I’m seeing in my neighbors today.”
Coleen is a Gold Star spouse. Her husband, Army Sgt. Maj. Rob Bowman, died in 2013 from a rare form of cancer caused by toxins to which he was exposed during a combat deployment to Iraq. She now works for a non-profit called TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) that is dedicated to helping military families cope with grief, loss and recovery.
In response to the coronavirus, TAPS has recently made all its resources available to the public. Coleen believes her experience and that of other military families can benefit all Americans.
“Just like a lot of other people right now, we didn’t always get to celebrate many special days together,” she said. “We were not always with our soldiers when they died. And sometimes, we couldn’t even see them when their bodies come home … for obvious reasons.”
She wants to remind Americans that grief is individual; there’s no one right way to deal with it, and that fear is a real thing to be respected.
“Everything you’re feeling is perfectly normal,” she said.
She told me she believes her grief has steeled her, but that the virus has triggered emotions she thought were long buried. Coleen’s convinced she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and that during this pandemic, it’s reared its ugly head again.
“I have a lot of compassion for the American people right now,” she said. “I’ve been there, and I know — I know what they are feeling.”
And I guess that’s just the point. Coleen knows — a lot of military families know — what their neighbors are going through.
Is it a perfect comparison? Of course not. Military service in time of war — and we have been at war for two decades — cannot so breezily be equated to life under Covid-19.
But there are lessons we can take away, wisdom we can borrow, solidarity we can feel between two communities — civilians and the military — that, while mutually respectful of one another, haven’t exactly managed to bridge the yawning gap between them.
Memorial Day 2020 might just provide us that opportunity.
We must be careful, though.
Memorial Day is about remembering our fallen and their families. We must not succumb to the inevitable pressure, as we are wont to do, to conflate this holiday with praise for veterans and thanks to the troops still on duty.
There are other days and other ways to do that.
There are other heroes in these fearful days — health care workers, first responders, bus drivers and grocery store clerks. And they deserve our thanks and our respect.
But Memorial Day is about the respect we show those who lost their lives defending our ability to live long ones. It’s about those who gave up their future freedom defending the freedoms we now enjoy — including, I might add, the freedom to protest what you think your government is doing poorly about this damned virus.
It’s about soldiers like Rob Bowman, who, though he died in bed at home, surely gave the last full measure of his devotion on an Iraqi battlefield. And it’s about his widow, Coleen, and their three daughters, who still visit Rob’s grave in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery, still grieve and cry, still wonder what life would be like if he was still around.
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We remember them — we mourn with them — on this holiday.
But we’d be fools, indeed, if we failed to remember what those fallen troops and their surviving families can teach us about how to better connect with one another, how to recover from tragedy and how to overcome our own fear and grief during this pandemic.
“Memorial Day is every day for me,” Coleen told me. “I don’t just stop to remember Rob. I stop to remember what I need to keep doing on every other day of the year.”
And we’d be fools if we let it be anything different for the rest of us.