It happens every year: Memorial Day comes around and I am showered with well-wishes and sincere thanks for my service by strangers and friends alike. Though I understand the sentiments are genuine and I try to be gracious, I bristle inside. The more acceptable it becomes to “celebrate” Memorial Day with a mattress sale and a barbecue, the fewer Americans take the time to fully understand the meaning behind a federal holiday observed on the last Monday in May.
The reality is many people simply do not realize what this holiday really means. Too often people don’t know the difference between Memorial Day — for the service members we have lost — and Veterans Day — for anyone who has worn the uniform. I understand all too well the purpose of Memorial Day. I have seen men die in combat.
It feels like a lifetime ago now, but I was inspired to join the military and fight following the brutal terrorist attacks of 9/11. I left college and joined the Navy, and eventually I became a Navy SEAL. I wasn’t sure where in the world I might find myself, or what I might be required to do, but I felt compelled to serve my country.
My first deployment was to Ramadi, Iraq, where I served with an incredibly brave and ferocious group of SEALs in 2006. We worked in cooperation with the Army and Marines to root out insurgents who had infiltrated Al Anbar Province, and we were highly successful over that summer. Though we inflicted heavy casualties upon the enemy, our task unit also suffered losses. Ryan Job suffered a wound that later cost him his life. Mike Monsoor, of Garden Grove, California, threw himself on a grenade, saving the lives of six others that had been on a rooftop with him that day.
On Aug. 2, 2006, Marc Lee, of Hood River, Oregon, and a man whose barrel chest and huge arms had made him seem almost invincible in life, was killed as we cleared a house together. Lee, who had become like a brother to me, whose antics and humor were as much a part of our everyday routine as performing a weapons check, became the first Navy SEAL to die in Iraq. As a medic, it was my job to administer care to him. I did the best I could for him, and when I could do no more, I carried him out of that firefight.
In many ways, I have carried him every day since. I have certainly never looked at Memorial Day the same way since he made the ultimate sacrifice in Ramadi.
Chris Kyle’s book “American Sniper” and the follow-up movie have made our platoon — nicknamed “The Punishers” — one of the better-known SEAL platoons in the history of the teams. People sometimes call me a hero when they find out I was a Team THREE Charlie Platoon SEAL. Again, I bristle. We weren’t out there on the streets of Ramadi seeking recognition. We simply raised our hand, served our country and protected our brothers. No true warrior would call himself a hero.
I have fought next to some courageous men and witnessed some amazing feats of bravery. However, in spite of knowing some of the toughest men I’ve ever met in the teams, I stand by my claim that the real heroes are the men and women who don’t come home.
Memorial Day is for them.
Memorial Day needs to be a solemn remembrance of the brave Americans who have laid down their lives for the freedom we cherish. Frankly, the mere act of putting on the uniform isn’t heroic. As Americans, we have begun to overuse the word “hero.” It is admirable and it is commendable when a person makes the decision to serve his or her country, and I believe that America needs more of it, but the heroes are the ones we remember on Memorial Day.
I have spent the last year writing “The Last Punisher,” a memoir about my deployment in 2006. It has brought back Ramadi as if it was yesterday. It makes it very hard to believe that this Aug. 2 will mark 10 years since the last time I saw my friend, Marc Lee, alive. I still talk about him often — and think about him even more.
I understand that there are a lot patriotic Americans in this country just looking for a way to support the military. This Memorial Day, I encourage you to think of the veterans in your life. Who are they remembering? Whose life was sacrificed on some foreign soil? Save your thanks for Veterans Day, and instead ask him or her to tell you a story about a true hero. Help keep the memories of those who didn’t make it home alive.
Lacz is a former U.S. Navy SEAL sniper and combat medic and author of “The Last Punisher.” He is a certified physician assistant who lives with his wife and children in Pensacola, Florida.