Pfc Shane M. Reifert

Pfc Shane M. Reifert
Shane during a sweep of the Shuryak Valley, approximately 3 weeks before he was killed. Photo Credit: PFC Sean Stromback

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thanks for Nothing, Tax Dollars OR How Not to Honor the Dead

This past Thursday, my immediate family and I attended the State of Michigan's 17th Annual Memorial Day Service, held in Lansing and at the Governor's residence. I didn't really know what to expect from the event. I knew Shane and the other Michigan soldiers who had died within the past year would be honored. Governor Snyder would sign the Gold Star License Plate bills into law. Some people would talk. We would eat some lunch. Maybe we would be sad, maybe we wouldn't.

So we traveled to Lansing. I was on edge that morning. I'm sure my mother knew that it was because the event would make me emotional, but I was not yet aware of that and thought that I would be just fine.

We watched Governor Snyder sign the Gold Star License Plate bill into law. Senator John Pappageorge made a speech before the signing about how people used to live in the front of their houses but now our license plates would serve as the front of our houses, to let people know what had happened to our loved ones, to pay their respects. It was fitting. It was respectful.

Then it was time for the actual presentation. We had received the sort of booklet that one normally receives at events like these. There are probably over a dozen littered around our house from various events. I don't know why we keep things like this; I never look at them again after the event, but there is a feeling that getting rid of them would be slightly sacreligious. That it might take a piece of Shane away. So they are kept and tucked into corners and placed into piles, only to be found months later when cleaning. They do not suffer the fate of old magazines, which are thrown in the trash when a certain amount of time passes. Instead, these pamphlets are saved from the trash heap or recycling bin, for the mere fact that that have a very specific name within their pages.

So we were given booklets. And they had pictures of the Michigan casualties from within the past year, along with some words about the men. Shane's write-up was inaccurate and did not mention that he had received a Bronze Star. It was also partially plagarized, which I will always find to be incredibly lazy and annoying. This stuck me as an indication of sloppiness, hastiness, not quite caring enough-iness.I flipped through the booklet after we had taken our seats and made it all the way up to the first speaker before I started crying. She was a Gold Star Mother, speaking about when two soldiers had come to tell her that her son had been killed. Her words were not touching to me. She was not a great orator. But still, I fled the room and perched myself on a ledge in the bathroom.

My mother followed me, making sure that I was okay. I, apparently, was not. I told her that I didn't understand why I was getting so emotional. That I was tired of being sad all the time. That I was tired of people making me sad. I told her to please go back and sit with my father. That I would not be returning but that I would be fine and mill around the Capitol Building. Finally assured that I was temporarily okay, she went back to her seat. I found my way into the old Michigan Supreme Court courtroom. As I sat in the grand room, marveling at the architecture and intricate designs painted on the walls, I could hear the first speaker still droning on, although I could not hear her actual words. At least fifteen minutes had passed since I had the room. I didn't know how she was still talking, or what she would possibly be talking about that the other Gold Star Families in the room -- who made up a strong majority of the audience -- had not experienced in some form or another themselves. And that's really when it hit me. That I had been crying not because of that woman's story, but because of my family's story. Because my mother had gone through a day when two soldiers came to the door. And my father and I received phone calls from my mother informing us of the terrible news that same day. And that woman behind the podium was bringing all that up, when I had found a way to cope and to manage and to filter through the feelings of everything that had happened since those two soldiers came to our front door. I became angry that I was being brought backward in my grief process. But more than angry, I lacked understanding. I didn't understand why the speaker was telling a story that had already been experienced by her audience. And then I found myself wondering what sort of things I would have been talking about. It would have been about Shane's life. About the sort of person he was. About how I was sure that everyone would love to give back being a Gold Star Family if they could just have a couple of seconds with their loved one. It wouldn't have been about the day the soldiers told my mother Shane was never coming home as a living, breathing person. It wouldn't have been about the funeral. It wouldn't have been about the burial. It wouldn't have been about the aftermath of any of that.

But no one asked me to speak, so I guess I'm speaking here.

After the speaking ceased and the doors opened, I was reunited with my parents. They said it was very touching when Senator Phil Pavlov placed a flag honoring Shane in a basket during some sort of ceremony. My mother said that a little girl had been eating her boogers. This made me smile and become slightly grossed out, as boogers have never sounded appetizing to me. And we piled in the car to head to the Governor's residence.

The residence is in a beautiful neighborhood, with perfectly manicured lawns and old homes. All of the Gold Star Families were made to park in a shoddy lot with cracked cement. This lot was located a fair distance from the actual residence. It was also raining and had been raining for the past few days. We schlepped our way in the rain to the Governor's residence, where we were escorted in. While the original invitation to the event had informed us that the luncheon was to take place outside, I thought that surely this plan had changed, due to the cold and rainy weather. I figured that furniture would have been moved around to accommodate the families or that we would be a basement of some sort.

But I was wrong.

We were shown right on out of the house and into the backyard. To a tent. Without side protection from the rain. Without anything to soak up the rain water that was an inch deep in the cold grass. With rows of chairs and a podium, not round or square tables. With bodies crammed together because of the cold. With people sitting in those rows of chairs with plates of food on their laps.

I was disgusted. I was horrified. I was temporarily stuck thinking that maybe I was at a 4H Fair, but then realized that at 4H Fairs there are always barns to take shelter in when it rains. And then I realized that my feet were soaking wet. I looked at my mother and father. Thankfully, my father was the first to say that it was time to go, taking the words out of mine and my mother's mouths. We walked back through the house and out the front door. We appeared in the driveway and my father pointed out that I had mud all over my leg. I found it fitting.

And so we left.

I'm disgusted that Governor Snyder put on such an abortion of an event for Michigan's Gold Star Families and Veterans. While I'm sure that he did not personally put the event together, someone who works for him did. And it was awful. It was disrespectful. It was in no way, shape, or form an event that CEOs or Representatives or Senators would have been invited to and expected to just accept. I don't know how or why other people stayed standing in that cold rain. Maybe they thought it was lovely. I thought it would have been better to have nothing at all than to have the "luncheon" they were trying to pass off. Luncheons involve tables. They involve small talk. They involve getting to know people and sharing stories. They do not involve rows of chairs in water-soaked grass, listening to someone drone on at a podium while people struggle to eat off of their laps.

So I don't think I'll be attending another one of those types of services. I don't need them. I don't like them. I don't want to hear someone else's version of my and family's experiences. I don't need a ceremony for Shane. I have a ceremony for him every single day. One that doesn't involve being soggy or sitting in uncomfortable chairs or inaccurate information. My ceremony involves love and happy memories and sometimes sad memories and knowing that I will always be carrying a piece of Shane inside of my heart, as will my mother and my father and anyone else who wants to hold Shane dear.