May 22, 2018

Roundtable discussion yields variety of viewpoints on the annual holiday celebration

Memorial Day was once a day of solemn bereavement for fallen members of the United States military, but over the years, it has gotten lost in backyard barbecues, road trips and weekend radio countdowns.

A group of Arizona State University student veterans would like to change that.

ASU Now recently conducted a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with four students from the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, who weighed in on what the annual holiday means to them and how it should be celebrated. The roundtable includes Steve Sequeira, an Air Force veteran studying business sports and media; Amanda Joyce, an Air Force veteran studying business law; Danielle Snyder, an Air Force veteran studying dietetics; and Marine veteran Jonathon Chasteen, who is studying biomedical engineering.

Question: Do you believe veterans view Memorial Day differently than civilians do?

Amanda Joyce: I think veterans do see Memorial Day a little differently than civilians because there’s more of a personal tie. Most people do have a family member who is somehow related to the military, so there’s probably a generalized understanding of Memorial Day. However, as a veteran, there’s a personal connection to the people you meet in the military that bonds you a little bit more. So on Memorial Day, you do think about people you know who have fallen and made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.

Steve Sequeira: There’s bound to be a disconnect because in today’s all-volunteer military, only 1 percent of our population serves. A majority of this country is detached from Memorial Day, and they don’t see it the same way we probably do.

Jonathon Chasteen: I think there’s a disconnect with college students, too, in that they don’t understand what Memorial Day is all about. They should think back to Vietnam when people their age were getting drafted and going right to the front lines. It could have been them at one time and still could be.

Q: How would you like to see the country celebrate Memorial Day differently in the future?

Danielle Snyder: That’s a good question and one that I didn’t think would be asked. Veterans do like to celebrate and have fun. I would think fellow veterans who are no longer here wouldn’t want us to be sad, and perhaps even to have a toast or shot in their honor. When we were in the military, we got through the hard times by laughing and joking.

Video by Deanna Dent and Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Q: Is there someone specifically that you’ll remember on Memorial Day, and how will you honor them?

Sequeira: I have three friends that I lost while in the service — two were in my unit in Afghanistan, another was on a C-130 crash that crashed in J-bad (Jalalabad) in Afghanistan in 2015. I won’t just be remembering them but honoring them. The times we shared together were all fun; nothing was sad. We were pro football fans and rooted for opposing teams that shared a huge rivalry. Naturally, we’d tease each other. One of my friends is buried in Virginia, and I will eventually go to his grave. On Memorial Day I will think of him and say a prayer for his family. ... [I'll] open a beer for him and just leave it off to the side. 'Cause while he might not be there physically with us anymore, he’s still here in spirit, with me at least.

Q: Do you feel the country as a whole has forgotten the true meaning of Memorial Day?

Chasteen: I do believe this country has lost touch with what it means. Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer, so I believe that distraction allows people to easily forget what it’s about. I also think people get Memorial Day mixed up with Veterans Day and have many people thank me for my service. Hopefully people can remember the real purpose of Memorial Day.

Q: How did you celebrate Memorial Day in the past — say, when you were a kid?

Sequeira: For me, it’s completely different. I’m a first-generation American, and I’m the first in my family to join the military. Growing up, I had no attachment to the military, and it was just another day off from school for me. I’d celebrate by going out to the lake with my family and having fun. After my service, it has more meaning. I see it differently. I celebrate the ones I knew who sacrificed their lives, because I know they’d hate it if I pouted all day. They certainly would not want me to be sad.  

Joyce: Growing up we’d go and visit my grandpa’s grave, who was a veteran. We’d drive to his grave site and place flowers on it, and then do a big family barbecue. Then when I joined the military I’d volunteer at Black Hills National Cemetery in South Dakota and place flowers on the graves of sites that looked like their families didn’t or couldn’t visit them. I did it because that’s what I hoped someone would do for my family. We didn’t make it a sad event. It was more about understanding the past, why they served and why we’re serving.

Q: Should it be a day of mourning or celebration?

Chasteen: I view it as a day of celebration because of what veterans have given, especially those who have died. I don’t think you should mourn. I don’t think it’s a time to mourn every year. I think I celebrate it just like everyone else but just more motivation for what it actually is.

Joyce: Definitely a celebration. I think you just become grateful for the life that you have and just remember that you’re lucky to be alive. It just makes you grateful in a sense. ... I just see it as a way to be thankful for everything they did, so we can live how we live today. I’m just very thankful.

Q: When you were in the service, how did you celebrate Memorial Day?

Chasteen: We definitely celebrated harder and larger, seeing as I was in the barracks with 200 other Marines. We celebrated for what it meant but also took advantage of the time off. I think the people who gave their lives to this country would have celebrated it the same way and would want us to celebrate it that way. I think we are obligated to celebrate because we’re given the opportunity to celebrate something. I feel like we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. I wouldn't celebrate in the same way with civilians who had not served as I would with other veterans.

Sequeira: I differ a little. When I was in the Honor Guard for six months, I buried one of my friends. It’s more sentimental to me because I have a vivid memory of this person because I saw her every day. Then I stopped seeing her. Then I was carrying her casket. But then as a group we did go out that night and celebrated her life.

Snyder: I was in the Air Force on a flight maintenance crew and we were on 24/7 ops, and often didn’t have the opportunity to celebrate Memorial Day because we were always servicing the flightline. One year, however, I did have it off and a group of us went camping. We were experiencing that closeness and trying to have fun together. We truly enjoyed each other because you form this bond that is unbreakable.

Q: Given how you feel about Memorial Day being a day of celebration, how do you feel when people post pictures on Facebook or other social media of their relatives who have given their lives?

Chasteen: I do see it a lot on social media and about the loved ones they lost. I don’t think it’s negative. For them it’s a way to shed light on it, bringing awareness. Put a face to the day. In a way it’s a toast. Showing pictures of real people who served and died in the military is what Memorial Day is supposed to be about.

Joyce: Everyone has a different way of grieving, and if grieving is their closure, if that’s their process and helps them, then more power to them. It reminds me of what the day is for. If people need to mourn differently that’s fine. As long as they are remembering and it helps them and they’re doing it in a way that’s healthy, I don’t see any issues with it. Most people don’t join the military to be war heroes. They joined because they were selfless. It’s a selfless duty and, unfortunately, that comes with the job sometimes.

Q: So what do you do when someone thanks you for your service on Memorial Day?

Snyder: It doesn’t upset me because they’re not aware of the difference, and I don’t really blame them. I would just explain to them the difference — Memorial Day is honoring those who did pass away; Veterans Day honors those who did serve.

Sequeira: Again, it goes back to the 1 percent of the population who do serve. So there’s that huge disconnect again. Last Memorial Day I was out at a bar and happened to meet another veteran. Someone else joined us who wasn’t a veteran and said, “Happy Memorial Day.” The other person lashed out at him and said, “It’s not Happy Memorial Day … our friends lost their lives.” I looked at my fellow veteran and said, “Easy, man, he’s never served in the military. He doesn’t know the difference.” People do get confused sometimes, and it wasn’t coming from a bad place. I was happy to explain the difference. Not everyone knows.

Chasteen: Look, even my family is guilty of that. They post "Happy Memorial Day" on Facebook and then I have to hide or delete it (laughs).