The following was originally published in the Puyallup Herald
With the approach of Memorial Day I begin to think of all who have served in the military, especially friends and family. Technically, Memorial Day was established to honor and remember those who died in service to our nation, but I know of no family member or close family friend who I can so memorialize.
My father, grandfather, brother, father-in-law, and a number of uncles all served honorably in the military.
My maternal grandfather, Edward Bertram, was commanding officer at Vancouver Barracks when my parents met. It was 1941, and Dad was the new officer on base. He quickly charmed his way into Mom’s heart. Hal Brown and Kitty Bertram married after a short engagement.
A year later Grandfather Bertram was dead from heart disease and America was at war in the Pacific and Europe. Dad would return home in 1945 after serving in New Guinea and The Philippines, suffering from a combination of malaria and dysentery. He spent months in a hospital recovering.
By this time he was also a dedicated smoker. There is some uncertainty as to when he picked up the tobacco habit. My sister thinks it was prior to his admission to West Point. I’m having a hard time reconciling that with the fact that he ran cross-country and was the number two miler on the track team.
What I do know is that many of our military men who served in World War II picked up the habit due to cigarettes included with their C-rations, or those distributed by certain non-governmental organizations.
In 1946 Dad was sent by the Army to the University of Chicago to study nuclear science. He received a Master’s Degree in 1948. During his time there, he was hospitalized when a canister of chlorine gas was accidentally breached in a lab while he was working in another part of the building. His lungs were blistered, leaving them scarred.
After finishing his degree, Dad spent the next several years building bombs in New Mexico. I don’t know much about the safety precautions taken around radioactive materials in those days, but I would hazard a guess that he was exposed to considerably more radiation than the average Joe working in a factory.
We can never know how many of our veterans died prematurely from service related injuries. Dad spent the final years of his life struggling to breathe, a nebulizer always at hand. No doubt the cigarettes he smoked for most of his life were to blame, but the chlorine gas cannot be dismissed.
So on Memorial Day I will be honoring those who died bravely in combat, but I will also be thinking of those whose fates are not easy to connect to patriotic duties: Those who returned from World War II addicted to tobacco; the veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals in uniform; those with mental illness due to post-traumatic stress who died alone on the street.
All deserve to be honored.