Flags, picnics, and parades punctuate Memorial Day. The event marks trips to beach, parks, and summer time lemonade. At the end of the day we catch a glimpse of the president laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier on the evening news and a moment a patriotic sadness overtakes us until the next commercial. Maybe a Chevy commercial waves a flag and touches our hearts, but we distract ourselves with strawberry shortcake and watermelon.
While deployed with the Navy SEALS, a bearded team guy lay recovering after having his intestines splayed on an operating table. He was gut shot when a mission went wrong at a National Afghani Police check point. He survived and talked with me about his brush with death like the stoic warrior he was.
Sergeant Christopher Wrinkle was not as fortunate. He is a “nearly unknown soldier.” A Marine that longed to be in Special Operations, I first met him as a Corporal. His wiry frame disguised his strength. He tried out on the team obstacle course where his spider-like ability scaled a wall and stretched beyond his smallish build. He could climb but leading proved difficult. People troubled him. Getting along in a small team, an important attribute for MARSOC, but an unlikely attribute for Wrinkle undid him. He tried, but he tried too hard. Without knowing it, his team lost trust.
Despite his skill and his desire, he didn’t make the team but he was not done. He took an administrative job at the newly formed Marine Special Operations Unit. Discontented sitting behind a job, Chris suffered the presence of office workers, got a divorce, and fought for custody of their dog. Animals he loved. He learned that MARSOC teams needed dog handlers, and he raised his hand.
Known as enablers, the teams supplemented their ranks with corpsmen, intelligence, and dog handlers. On his first mission to Afghanistan, he was inseparable from his dog Tosca. The team slept in a wood hut contractors built with shoddy plywood while charging the military exorbitant fees. Wrinkle could have put Tosca in the kennel but he kept him by his side.
Earlier in the day electricians worked on the wiring. That night everyone escaped the fire. Everyone but another Marine and a dog. Sergeant Wrinkle stood outside watching the large shack go up in flames. No insulation, just a plywood skin, the building engulfed in flames threw off a tremendous heat.
Sergeant Wrinkle ran back into the flames for Tosca. He never came out. Somewhere near Dallastown, Pennsylvania, a mother and father wept. Their boy was a hero. Their boy was dead, July 31, 2011.
Almost everyone forgot their boy, that independent, sometimes antagonistic but always plucky dog handler.
Memorial Day is for the parents, for the wives and husbands, for the children. Memorial Day is for us to say thank you to the families who will never forget their children and our heroes.
The day began after 600,000 Americans died in the civil war and national cemeteries were honored. It started “Decoration Day” but after World War II became officially known as “Memorial Day. It was not until 1968 the day was moved to a Monday, creating a three-day weekend and unofficially marking the beginning of Summer.
Moving the day to a Monday denigrated it from a solemn remembrance to a festive picnic. I like a parade as much as any God-fearing American but when I reflect on the Sergeant Wrinkles I knew, I pause in pray for the parents on the last Monday in May.
The first slain warrior I stood in formation for was Specialist Pat Tillman, the former NFL linebacker who gave up a four-million-dollar contract to be a US Army Ranger. I watched his younger brother follow behind his body bag as he came off the battlefield to be loaded into a helicopter in April, 2004.
Tillman’s unit was on a mission to retrieve a disabled vehicle when they were caught in an ambush. He was between his and opposing forces when he succumbed to “friendly fire.” The military withheld the nature of his death for months despite knowing the truth in a number of hours. They set up a foundation, the NFL established a memorial, his family still grieves.
No outcome compares to the cost of losing a son, daughter, husband, or mother.
On Monday, join me in prayer for the families of the fallen and for those still walking this earth. You may contact me at facebook.com/throughlifeandloss or andymdavidson.com.