Fathers, flags and holding our leaders accountable

Paratroopers fly as part of commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing in 2014.
Paratroopers fly as part of commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing in 2014. AP

I spent Memorial Day scanning documents from my father’s past to share with my family. I was home alone for the weekend, and it seemed fitting to spend the day curating the documents of my father’s life. My father served in World War II and spent his entire professional career as a social worker in the Veteran’s Administration. It seemed right to spend time archiving his achievements on Memorial Day.

My childhood memories of Memorial Day were marked with painful boredom, speeches, graveyards and ancient soldiers in uniforms out of history books. You see, my dad dragged me to Wood VA Hospital (on his day off!) so that I could meet veterans and understand why I didn’t have to go to school that day. We would always cap our visit with a walk through the domiciliary, which housed veterans so old they scared me – including a ritual visit to a surviving Spanish-American war vet, who always wore his uniform on that day. I vowed I’d never waste another perfectly good holiday listening to boring speeches and poorly played patriotic music.

Tucked away inside my dad’s high school diploma was the program for his graduation in St. Cloud, Minnesota. It lists all 42 members of the Kimball High School class of 1942, their class colors (rose and silver), and their class flower (red rose). However, it was their class motto that brought me up short: “On the Youth of Today Rests the Democracy of Tomorrow.” That wasn’t hyperbole for the Class of ’42. The world was at war, and democracy hung in the balance.

It would be two years later almost to the day when Staff Sgt. Bruce Braden left England in the dead of night on a C-47 towing three gliders filled with paratroopers on their way to Normandy. D-Day was my dad’s first combat mission. As a child, I always wondered why he didn’t talk about it more often. It was such a glorious moment in history, one my classmates and I relived time and again in the neighborhood, inspired by shows like “Combat!” and “Twelve O’Clock High.”

I later realized as an adult why my father didn’t tell us more about his more than 80 combat missions that included the Battle of Bastogne, Operation Market Garden, Patton’s push and more. Yes, he was humble – but he was also guilty. As he finally told me one day, his voice cracking, “I made it through D-Day because the Germans concentrated their fire on the gliders. They knew where the troops were. It wasn’t in my plane.”

My dad – like many in his generation – relished in telling other stories.

He laughed so hard he nearly cried when telling us about almost being court-martialed when the pilot of their lumbering Skytrain did a barrel roll over an airstrip in Italy in a near-fatal attempt to impress some nurses they never saw again. Or about nearly being killed – not by enemy fire, but by an Arctic storm that buffeted their plane, which was made heavier than it should have been by a field marshal’s captured jeep and other spoils of war they were flying home at the request of unnamed Army brass. (When they unloaded the jeep, the non-com receiving the delivery asked, “Why is a case of champagne missing?” to which they all shrugged and said “What champagne?”) Yes, those were the kind of stories he liked to tell. He didn’t like to talk about the gliders at D-Day, the paratroopers at Arnhem or the terrible beauty of the tracers slicing through the night sky.

This past Memorial Day, I don’t exactly know why I went to Oakwood Cemetery to hear boring speeches and patriotic music. Oddly, I took some solace in seeing children who were, as I had been at their age, dragged unwillingly to remember the dead and honor the living by determined parents. I hope they remember, but I think my father would want them to do more. I think he would want them to learn to look past the flags, to do more than say, “Thank you for your service.”

He would want them to hold their leaders accountable, to not let them hide behind the false flag of patriotism and to understand that Memorial Day is a time to do more than recall glory. It is a time to demand honesty. Voltaire said, “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” My father, and his 41 classmates, understood that. I pray that we do, too.

Jeff Braden is the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of psychology at N.C. State University.