Susan Alden is an Army veteran and the Executive Director of Warriors at Ease. Memorial Day brings both a sense of loss and eternal gratitude to the forefront of Alden’s mind. Over the years, she’s said farewell to friends and comrades who’ve died in service to their country, ironically all in the weeks surrounding this national holiday. These losses are a solemn reminder of the price of freedom.
WAE: Today is Memorial Day, a day when most Americans have a day off work and are relaxing with friends or family.
SA: Yes. For many people, Memorial Day is all about backyard BBQ’s and lazy days on the beach. I’ve had my fair share of both. However, having spent the past 24 years in the military community as a cadet, soldier, and spouse, I know all too well what Memorial Day is really about. I also understand that, for many veterans, today is a tough day.
WAE: What is Memorial Day really about in your eyes?
SA: First and foremost, it’s about remembering those who died while serving our country and honoring the families of the fallen. Those of us who’ve lost a comrade or who know a Gold Star family (families of fallen service members) have a role in making sure those who made the ultimate sacrifice are not forgotten. For individuals who have no connection to the military, your remembrance matters as well. In some of my most intimate moments with Gold Star families I’ve learned that a heartfelt letter from a complete stranger, a grateful citizen, can mean so very much.
WAE: Can you tell me about your first experience with loss related to war?
SA: My first experience with losing a dear friend and comrade came on May 28th, 2004. It was Memorial Day weekend, and my family and I were visiting relatives in western North Carolina. Our weekend was harshly interrupted when we got a call that our brother-in-arms, Captain Dan Eggers, was killed in Afghanistan.
My husband, Jamie, and I had both served with Dan and his wife Rebecca (also active duty) while we were in 3rd Infantry Division at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. At the time of Dan’s death, our two families were stationed together at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina where Dan and Jamie had earned their coveted green berets together and were both serving in 3rd Special Forces Group. After hearing the tragic news that weekend, we soon made our way back home to Ft. Bragg, and then my husband quickly left for Dover Air Force Base where he would meet up with Dan’s casket and escort his remains to Arlington National Cemetery.
WAE: No wonder Memorial Day weekend has so much personal meaning for you. And this was not the only loss you’ve experienced among your tight knit Special Forces community, was it?
SA: No, it’s not. Sadly we lost another Green Beret who was very dear to us, Staff Sergeant Michael Simpson. He died on May 1, 2013 from wounds he sustained on a mission in Afghanistan with 1st Special Forces Group. Mike was in my husband’s company and was killed in the early weeks of their 2013 deployment. Though the guys had a memorial for Mike in country, they had little time to pause and grieve in the midst of intense missions.
On the other end of the world, we had a memorial for Mike at Joint Base Lewis McChord and his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Like Dan Eggers, Mike was survived by a wife and two young boys under the age of five. He was buried at Arlington exactly 8 years and 364 days from Dan Egger’s death. I remember standing graveside next to Krista, Mike’s wife and her two children who were just just 17 months and 3 years old at the time, and reflecting on how long and how costly this Global War on Terrorism has been and the fact that most Americans have little awareness of the great sacrifices made by families like the Eggers and the Simpsons.
WAE: I understand that your have a special friend, a West Point classmate, who was also killed in Afghanistan in 2013?
SA: Yes, on June 8th, 2013, my 1997 classmate, Army Crew teammate, and sister-in-arms, Lieutenant Colonel Jaimie Leonard was killed in action in Afghanistan. Because my husband was in Afghanistan and operating in and around where Jaimie Leonard was deployed, I had heard that an incident had happened. While the news of an “insider attack” at a base in Afghanistan was upsetting, I remember feeling a huge sense of relief when I heard that it did not involve anyone from our unit.
A couple of days later, when they released the names of those who were killed in the attack, I learned that my friend Jaimie had been killed alongside Lieutenant Colonel Todd Clark who had been one of our neighbors when were stationed in California. My husband, still in Afghanistan, witnessed the dignified transfer of Jaimie and Todd’s remains as their caskets left the country. Soon thereafter, I returned to the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York for the first time in 10 years to honor her.
Jaimie’s family from nearby Warwick, New York, many of our classmates, Army Crew teammates, and others gathered at the historic West Point cemetery where she was laid to rest. It is a fitting place for Jaimie, a distinguished graduate of West Point, esteemed Army officer and the highest ranking woman to be killed in action in U.S. history, to be buried.
WAE: I imagine that LTC Leonard’s death had a major impact on other women at West Point, particularly her female classmates.
SA: Yes, Jaimie’s death was a great shock to us all – a tremendous loss to our class, West Point, and to the Army as a whole. Less than 100 women graduated in our class of over 1000. Jaimie was an exceptional officer and a great mentor to many, especially aspiring female service members. Jaimie’s death reminds us that war has no regard for gender or rank and that our service members who are deployed in combat zones are at risk, whether they are Infantry, Military Intelligence or in a supporting role.
WAE: It seems like Memorial Day holds a very special and somber place in your heart.
SA: Yes, it does. When this holiday comes around each year, I’m reminded of something Jaimie wrote for her hometown newspaper, almost prophetically, in 2010:
“It is my wish this Memorial Day that you consider your duties as citizens. The duty goes beyond serving in the Armed Forces, jury duty, taxes or voting. Your duties are to each other, not some esoteric concept. Remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country in war, but also honor those others who sacrifice in other ways to make this country great – law enforcement, firefighters, teachers, volunteers, etc. Please honor them in deed and not just giving thanks, parades, or planting flowers or flags on graves. Take measure of what have you done for your country and ask yourself if you could do more.”
Jaimie’s words capture the essence of my thoughts and feelings perfectly.
WAE: Certainly. In closing, what message would you like to share for Memorial Day ?
SA: First and foremost, thank you. Thank you to all those who made the ultimate sacrifice like Dan, Mike, Jaimie, Todd and so many others. Thank you and God bless to all the families who still ache and yet manage to find joy, meaning and purpose in life despite great loss. I say thank you to the service men and women who stand bravely stand in harm’s way in order to protect our freedoms. And I say thank you to all the veterans who continue to serve local communities in their own unique ways.
My hope is that Americans may, if only for today, realize that no matter where we live, what we do, how we believe, or what we ascribe to, we are all truly connected by our common humanity.
WAE: Beautifully said. Thank you so much for your time and for your views on Memorial Day. I appreciate you sharing these powerful stories which help illustrate the true meaning of Memorial Day.
Pictured below from left to right:
Dan Eggers, Mike Simpson and Jaimie Leonard.
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