Memorial Day Tribute
Poignant Memorial Day remarks from Mike Dahl, a Vietnam veteran and former Redding mayor, who is turning Others into brothers in his community.
I have had the privilege of getting to know Mike Dahl and working with him this past year in my community of Redding, California. Mike is a former mayor who now serves citizens in an unofficial, but arguably more meaningful and impactful role. He is everywhere and yet behind the scenes, listening, advising, supporting, connecting, inspiring. His countless hours of selfless service he has put in for his community and nation, (for which he would never want recognition), are just the latest twist on a story of a lifetime of service, whether it was in combat in Vietnam or in public office. He offered these remarks to a local Rotary Club (Redding East Rotary) this Memorial Day. They resonated deeply with me and I offer them (with his permission) to you in the spirit of what this holiday is truly about. How remarkable, too, that he is “turning Others into brothers” right in our local community by honoring the shared service and sacrifice of both Americans and the Lao veterans who fought the same enemy.
“Today, May 30, is the traditional Memorial Day, our annual tribute to those who died while serving in our military. I applaud Redding East Rotary for honoring this special day. It is not a cheerful holiday or extended weekend. It is not the kick-off to Summer. It is not about beer and barbeque. That was last weekend. Today is a sacred and solemn time for reflection, commemoration and remembrance.
There is also another observance taking place at this very moment at the Veterans Grove next to the Redding Convention Center at Turtle Bay. I just came from there. There was a large gathering. Local vets hold this observance each year on May 30. Late last year, thanks to a handful of local volunteers, The McConnell Foundation, The Shasta College Foundation and Vic Hannon Materials, three new monuments were added to the Grove. One for Afghanistan and one for Iraq. The wars of our current generation. The third monument was a dedication to the Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam conflict. More on that later.
Dedicating part of your life to the military is a proud tradition of service and sacrifice. All our veterans, including those of you here today, gave some, as the saying goes. Others, here in spirit and memory, gave all. These are the men and women that gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Today, in Shasta County, we honor them.
It is crucial that we pass on to future generations the significance and importance of dedicating this day of veneration and remembering those that died to preserve our freedom and way of life; the American Dream. War is part of the human condition. Each generation shares and passes memories as we do today. Only a small percentage of Americans serve; an even smaller percent experience combat. And smaller yet, there is the exclusive band of heroes who offer the ultimate sacrifice to their country. This elite group exhibited incredible courage and commitment from the time they enlisted to the time they left us. Think about that commitment, which is, in essence: I will serve my country and if necessary die for you. This elite group actually did…die for you. That is what makes their memory so sacred. It is the memory and appreciation of the few that sacrificed so much for so many.
On this hallowed, and mournful day, we must also remember and acknowledge the families of the fallen. They also gave all: a son, a daughter, father or mother, husband or wife. A grandchild. Some die of their wounds on the battle field; some die of their wounds after they come home. The void and loss can never be filled. The emptiness is forever. As any grieving parent, sibling or spouse can attest, part of you dies on the battlefield with your warrior. It applies to every conflict in our history and will repeat itself in conflicts that have yet to occur. Same loss, different date. Same blood, different mud. Every war records grim statistics. But for the family, it is more than a grim statistic; it is a grim family tragedy.
For many of us, May 30 is the one day a year we join together to collectively recognize the fallen. However, for the families of the fallen, Memorial Day is every day. There is the memory of the day the military vehicle pulled up in the driveway; the knock on the door, the day of the phone call; the shock and grief, the disbelief; “this cannot be happening to me.” The day the flag-draped casket arrives at the Redding Airport and the procession to the cemetery. The moment you realize you will never wake up from a parent’s worst nightmare. The day a mom became a Gold Star Mother. The day a sister lost her big brother. The baby that will never meet their father and only know him from a photo. Broken hearts, broken lives, broken dreams. Taps, bagpipes and folded flags. There is the heartbreaking recognition the loved one will never, ever, join the family again at Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or fishing with dad or hiking with mom. They will never blow out a new birthday candle, ever again. The flame has perished. The loss is final and forever, except for memories.
Behind every gravestone, behind every name on the Wall, behind every war monument, there is a grieving family. That is part of the legacy of sacrifice; the unrelenting pain of the survivors. The names etched in headstones will increase in the future; families will suffer loss in the future, we will remember a new generation of warriors and defenders in the future. Same blood, different mud; different date; different generation, different war. Same loss, same pain. Our warriors sacrifice and serve us, and die for us. They pray for peace and prepare for war. That is just the way it is. Freedom is not free. There is a cost to protect and preserve our American Dream. These warriors sacrifice and pay the price for us, so we can freely assemble and honor them today.
Today is also an opportunity to recognize another part of our collective memory, Vietnam. War is part of our culture as a species; it is part of the human condition and it is part of our shared experience. But war is complex and complicated; time and history continue to reveal its secrets. Take the Vietnam War, my experience:
The Vietnam War was the first television war; live and in living color, in our living room; each night on all 3 networks; the bright red blood, the dull brown mud and emerald green jungles. Thanks to revolutionary 1960s communications technologies, it was the first transparent war, with real time reporting from dozens of journalists, writers, and reporters imbedded in the war zone. It was on our television every night, raw, and unfiltered; we were ringside spectators; and horrified parents, proud patriots and angry objectors.
But there was also a parallel war along the Vietnam border; it was not transparent. It was a secret war. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the supply line for Communist troops, weapons and supplies along the Laos border with Viet Nam. Laos, a small country the size of Utah, was in the wrong geopolitical place at the wrong time. Our CIA recruited a Lao-based army to fight with us against the Communist coming down from the north. The strategy was to sever the supply line and avert Laos from falling as another domino to the communists’ onslaught.
Our Lao veterans were an army of “special guerilla units” or SGUs. Like us, they fought and died in the same war against the same enemy. Like us, their families grieved their losses of loved ones. Like us, they were vehement anti-communists. Like us, some are now proud Americans living in Shasta County, veterans of the War in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. We were comrades in arms. Together we served, together we fought, together we sacrificed. And together, today, we are all Americans.
Last year at the Memorial Day observance at the Veterans Memorial Grove, our local Lao and Mien veterans and their families were recognized. For the first time. They are participating again today. Plus, this year there is a new monument to recognize and honor the veterans of the Secret War in Laos. The plaque is on the same stone as the dedication to Vietnam veterans. We want to recognize their sacrifices and make this Memorial Day a tribute to them as well.
Because of the secret war and our shared legacy from Vietnam, they represent the latest wave of immigration to Shasta County. All of us, apart from our Native People, are immigrants or children of immigrants who became Americans. Our ancestors came at various times and for varied reasons but we all immigrated to our new land of freedom. That is what makes America such a rich melting pot.
The secret war in Laos is no longer a secret.
If you have time later this afternoon or this evening, stop by the Veterans Grove and pay your respects.
As veterans, we have your back. We are always faithful to our country and you. Or, as we Marines say:
—Mike Dahl, former Redding mayor and city councilman