“Abruptly the poker of memory stirs the ashes of recollection and uncovers a forgotten ember, still smoldering down there, still hot, still glowing, still red as red.” William Manchester
One thing about military life is that when you serve a long time you collect mementos of your service. Some are earned, some are things you got just for showing up and some are items given to you by those that served with you. I have collected many in my 32 years and four decades of service. In those years I have come to cherish the the most the mementos that were given to me by the people that I served alongside, especially the ones with personal messages inscribed on them.
I have been moving things out of my office in preparation for my move back to Virginia for about a week now. Most of the things that I took back to my apartment before today were books, papers and articles of clothing and a few small mementos.
Today though I was different. Today I took down the mementos, my pictures, going away gifts, plaques and a few other articles. Among them were items inscribed by former Navy shipmates, Marines and Soldiers who I have served alongside dating back to 1985.
With the passage of years and assignments what I display in my office has changed. In my younger days my office was cluttered with citations for various awards, certificates, qualifications and academic degrees. In a sense it was the quintessential “I love me” wall.
When I came to Camp LeJeune three years ago that changed. I packaged up every award except for the citation to the Defense Meritorious Service Medal signed by General Raymond Odierno that I earned in Iraq. It has a great deal of meaning to me because of how much impact Iraq and my service there made on me. It changed my life and made me a different man with a new understanding of life. But unlike a dozen other personal awards I do not have it framed, it is still in the simple blue award folder that it was presented to me in Iraq.
I do not have any of my commissioning certificates, or ordination papers displayed. Of my academic degrees only my Masters Degree in Military History is displayed, like the DMSM it too is in the folder that it was presented. Of my military education I only display my certificate from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College the Army Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course and the Army Junior Officer Maintenance Course. Both of the latter is certificates are battered and in a very ramshackle frames.
Most of what I display now are things that were given to me by the people that I served something to do with baseball, Cold War era East German or Soviet militaria or pictures of family and my dogs. I have a couple of pictures and religious symbols, I have a copy of the picture “Madonna of Stalingrad” painted by a German Army doctor who was also a pastor, a small San Damiano crucifix and a bronze St Rupert Cross from Salzburg Austria.
Each item represents part of my life, career and things that I hold dear or which provide special memories, even if some come from times that were not always pleasant. But even the painful memories are part of the tapestry of my life. Haruki Murakami wrote:
“Most things are forgotten over time. Even the war itself, the life-and-death struggle people went through is now like something from the distant past. We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past are no longer in orbit around our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about everyday, too many new things we have to learn. But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone.”
However in general what I now display has a lot less to do with me than the people, places and experiences that are important to me. They are my touchstones. Thus what I experienced today was different than other times that I took down my “mementos.”
As I took each one down various emotions flowed through me, happiness, joy, sadness and even in some cases pain. I read the various well wishes inscribed by various people on the mattes of various pictures, from junior enlisted personnel, Chiefs and non-commissioned officers, officers former commanders to people like General Peter Pace and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright as well as German officers that I have served alongside. It is amazing the feelings
It is hard to put a finger on but it is almost like there is a metaphysical connection when I read, look at or touch some of those items. It is like I have gone back in time. In a sense maybe I have. That is the symbolic power of mementos. They are more than trinkets, more than awards or accomplishments they symbolize the ongoing power of relationships past, present and future. They are links to a past existing in the present and pointing to the future.
None of them are worth much money and to most other people they would mean nothing. But to me they are worth a great deal. They are reminders of my past and in a sense part of the tapestry that is me and hopefully on someone’s wall, on a card or a note what little I contributed will be remembered by others. As William Faulkner said:
“What matters is at the end of life, when you’re about to pass into oblivion, that you’ve at least scratched ‘Kilroy was here,’ on the last wall of the universe.”