More than 1.1 million Americans have died fighting in America’s wars, and thousands more service members have died while serving outside of war. Memorial Day is the day we set aside to honor and remember them.
Military service is teeming with ceremony and formality—and rightfully so. It’s a dangerous, serious business. It should be approached with respect and reverence.
But the people who serve in the military are…people. And the people we’ve lost were people long before they ever wore our nation’s uniform, and they were people on weekends and after work. They were people who lived and loved and left giant holes in the lives of those who loved them. They were pranksters and poets; daredevils and dreamers; hobbyists and huggers and…humans.
This year for Memorial Day, we asked you, their friends and family members, to tell us about the people we’ve lost, the way they’d want to be remembered—the way they are remembered by the people who loved them. Here are a few of those stories.
“I met Vince at MOS school in September of 2001. I was sitting in the bleachers waiting for my official MOS to be called out so I could join my group. The instructor called Romer! 0811! Vince yelled, “Oh snap, dawg!” And gave me a low-five handshake combo. Vince knew I wasn’t sure what MOS I was getting and was excited that I was going to be with him.
Fast forward through MOS school and we went our separate ways for a few years, but we talked regularly. We crossed paths again in Okinawa for a split second, and then again when I came back from my three-year tour at MCRD San Diego. He was my instructor at HIMARS launcher chief course. He hadn’t changed a bit. His classes were exciting and he always called me out. “Romer remembers what real artillery is!” We reminisced about fire missions with the 155mm howitzer and talked about our time as instructors at the artillery training school. It was awesome being his student and his friend.
I met up with Vince again at career course in Pendleton a little later down the road. We were in different squads then, but I could tell Vince was the light of his squad. Those guys and gals loved him. His squad was always super moto and you could always hear Vince cheering them on and pushing them during physical events.
I always talk about Vince on Memorial Day and today I want to share a new story, it’s something that I will never forget: I came back from the depot and already had judgment passed about me. “Oh lord, he is a drill instructor.” Vince told me to leave that at the door and nobody would respect me for that. He told me they would respect me for being Nick Romer. I have lived by that since the day he told me that.
Vince loved his Marines. He loved his motorcycle and his car. He loved his life and his family. Vince is the guy I always tried to be like. Vince was my friend, my mentor, and a great leader.”—Nick Romer
SSgt Vincent Bell—KIA, Afghanistan, November 30, 2011
“Scott Nisely, a retired Marine Corps Officer-turned-mailman, missed serving so much that he joined the Iowa National Guard as an enlisted soldier. He loved being a role model for the young soldiers in his unit and being able to still beat them at PT events. He enjoyed collecting GI Joes so much that he joined the doll collecting club at his church, where he brought his GI Joes in and chatted with the old ladies about their dolls. His house was a fun place for his kids’ friends to hang out and he knew the sports stats of everyone on his kids’ teams, especially if their parents weren’t always involved. He got to be at both of his kids’ weddings before he was killed, but he never got to meet his grandchildren.” –Andrea Nisely
Scott Nisely, killed in Iraq, September 30, 2006
“My father, SSG David P. Spears, 2/9th 25th ID, was KIA on July 24, 1966. Had he lived, we would have celebrated his birthday this past week, likely with a peach pie, his favorite. I spent years tracking down my father’s stories, meeting the men who served with him, those who were with him the day he died, the doctor who tried to save him in the field, and the medic who later identified his body. Those men have become my friends and my support over the years. I consider each of those veterans the gift my father gave to me.
His death weighs on me, especially this year as this worldwide pandemic leaves so many people grieving. I know grief. It has been my constant companion ever since Daddy’s death. I know what losing a parent does to a child, how it defines our destiny in so many ways—emotionally, spiritually, economically. Typically, I spend Memorial Day in D.C. at the Wall with my many veteran friends, some who knew my dad, most who did not. We laugh. We swap stories. We hug. I am missing those hugs and their presence, which is always such a source of comfort to me. I grieve that we can’t be together this year.
As we look at the flags around the nation lowered to half-mast, I find myself conflicted...this year 100,000 and counting lives lost. Imagine the Wall being twice as big as it is now. Imagine the name of each person lost. I do. I think about it daily. We owe it to our fallen to be better people than this. I carry the weight of that every single day. Vietnam was a misguided war that cost my father his life...It’s not enough to remember the fallen. It’s not enough to fly flags at half-mast and play TAPS. We owe it to them to demand a better America.” –Karen Spears Zacharias
Dennis & Michael McMahon
“My older brother Dennis graduated from West Point in 1976. My younger brother, Mike, was inspired by Dennis to attend West Point, as well. Mike was thinking about getting out of the Army and doing something different in the summer of 1982 but, before he could, Dennis was killed in a car accident at Ft. Benning. Mike stayed at West Point after Dennis’ death, graduating in 1985. Mike got married in 1987, the year after our mother died. He decided to follow our father’s passion for flight. His wife, Jeanette, also served as a pilot for the Army, and they had three sons. Mike died in a plane crash in Afghanistan in 2004, but he lived for his troops. He loved the Cavalry, and he loved God, his family, and his country.
They were both great dancers and Dennis had a Chiquita banana sticker collection on the back of his closet door that nearly went to the floor. My brothers knew how to have good, clean, fun. Laughter? Frequently. Dennis dressed me up in his football uniform when I was three and took me trick or treating. It’s tough to try to capture who they were because they were so much life.” –Stacie McMahon Ferry
Michael McMahon, November 27, 2004—Afghanistan
Dennis McMahon, July 10, 1982 – Ft. Benning
“There are only two moments in time for Gold Star Families, before and after. Even in the after, I can remember the half-crooked smile and entrancing blue eyes of Jordan, eyes that changed to icy blue in the Montana cold. Remembering his love for flight, as he relentlessly sought to return to the sky, again and again, teaches me to dare to pursue my passions. I remember his warm, fiery embrace, full of love and laughter, that took over when he let loose with our children.
My daughter’s favorite memory of her father was building large snow forts in the winter and throwing snowballs at each other. She thought he had hung the moon. I always wanted our son to have memories of hunting in the mountains on a brisk autumn morning and cracking jokes in a duck blind.
Even in his ruggedness, Jordan was a man that you wanted to be friends with, know, and be cherished by. His loyalty was devout to those he worked with in every squadron. A lifer, Jordan believed in honoring our history and protecting our freedoms. I am proud to have been loved by him and am devoted to honoring his legacy, now as a Gold Star Widow.”
Jordan Lewis, May 12, 2015—Cannon Air Force Base
Dimitri del Castillo
“I sit here today looking at old photos, and it’s hard to believe that they were all taken nine to 14 years ago. Some days it seems like just yesterday, and on other days it seems like a whole lifetime ago. In many ways, it was.
The life I saw for us was so happy. Full of dancing and laughing and brown-haired babies, funny stories of us as West Point cadets, memories of our happy pre-deployment life in Hawaii and then the surreal stories from our Afghanistan deployment where you got to fulfill your dream of leading an infantry platoon in combat and how I got to fly to your FOB and surprise you on your birthday with a bake-in-the-microwave cake and a borrowed church taper candle right in the middle of it. Little did I know that that would be the last time we would see each other, and that you would be killed by a sniper just 16 days later.
I’ve never admitted this, but after it happened I had secret hopes that maybe you had been chosen for some ultra-secret government mission where you had to leave your old life behind and fake your death. I prayed that that was the case, even if it meant I’d have to live my life without you. But when I saw your perfect, peaceful face in that casket before your funeral at West Point, I knew that that wasn’t what had happened and that all of the nightmares I’d had over the years had come true.
These memories of us almost seem like a dream now, and the fog of grief makes many of the details since your death difficult to recall. I now have a wonderful and understanding new husband and three precious blonde babies and I’m back here living in Hawaii, but the pain sure is real whenever I have a moment to look back and reflect on the life we never got to have. All the promise your life held, taken away in an instant. I love you and miss you so much, Dimitri. I am so proud of you. Thank you for giving your all.” —Katie Vail
Dimitri del Castillo, June 25, 2011—Afghanistan
“Michael was a hero. He chose to run towards danger when most of us would run away. He was willing, as the familiar anonymous quote goes, ‘to write a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America,’ for an amount up to and including his life.’
But to pause and do no more than give a quick hero’s tribute is to forget the truly important part of Memorial Day and every day for a nation still at war—that each marker in a seemingly endless sea of marble represents a person who once didn’t wear the uniform. A person who maybe already had dreams of the life he or she would live when the uniform had long been retired.
Michael’s before was filled with Winnie the Poo, “Go Go” Power Rangers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He loved black olives. Teddy was his beloved blanket and that he’d carry it everywhere with him.
He and his Dad watched MacGyver together on Monday nights and played Toro—Michael pretending to be the bull and his dad the bullfighter—waving Teddy to get the bull to charge.
When he’d outgrown such things and shared with his Mom that he wanted to join the Army, she wasn’t happy with his choice—she even tried to talk him out of it. But she saw his resolve and supported him anyway. And she made sure he was buried with his beloved Teddy in his final resting place.
As for his after—Michael was 20 when he died. He’d only begun writing his story. His parents resolved to make sure that the pages that followed weren’t blank.
Less than two months after Michael’s death, they gathered a group of volunteers—most of whom had known Michael since he was a baby and formed Butterfly Circle of Friends, a 501c3 nonprofit to help those in need—primarily focusing on veterans, service members, and their families.
Through their efforts in his name, Michael continues to serve. Love for him has supported Hurricane Sandy efforts, built veteran housing, provided holiday gifts to military families in need, and assisted thousands of military-connected individuals in the years since his death.
To a grateful nation, Specialist Michael L. Gonzalez died a hero and is remembered with honor this Memorial Day. To those who knew and loved Michael, he was a beloved little boy with a heart for service, and that service now lives on through charitable work serving families, much like the one who mourns his loss.“
Michael Gonzalez, August 28, 2008—Iraq