Part of my work spiritually, as an ancestor worker, involves honoring not just my own ancestors but several specific groups of the dead. One of those is the military dead. I maintain an extensive shrine to them at which I make regular offerings and I’ve gone on pilgrimage to honor them several times. I also keep an eye out for things that they may like, at flea markets, at antique stores, and so forth. While I was at Villanova last week participating in a theology conference, I took some time out to do a bit of antiquing. I was traveling with my friend Allen, who has a real gift for finding just the right thing that one might want or need (he’s really amazing at it). As we were hunting around one store, he picked up this bright, brass box and showed it to me. I was quite taken with it immediately and thought it might be Trench Art from WWI. When I spoke with the proprietor I found out that it wasn’t, instead it was a Mary Box.
In the last year of WWI, Britain’s princess Mary raised money on her own to create and send these boxes to every single soldier serving in the British forces, from highest to lowest (officers received silver boxes, enlisted brass). They were typically filled with tobacco or sometimes, if the soldier wasn’t a smoker, candy and sweets. They’re rarely in such good condition, because they were carried and used by these men. I was really, really lucky to find one – thanks to my friend Allen – in pristine condition. Of course, I bought it.
I decided that I would dedicate it to the military dead and use it as my cigarette case. That way, every time I smoke, I would be making an offering to them. So far, it’s been working beautifully and every time I hold it or open it, I’m reminded to give thanks for them, and to reach out to them, pray to and for them. Such a small thing has made me more intensely mindful and I am grateful. Most of all, I’m grateful that the Gods have guided me wisely in this practice of honoring this group of dead. May I learn from them and may I honor them well.
Called Remembrance Day in the UK and Veterans Day here, today is a day to honor those who died in WWI and, in the US, all those who served (within the US, it has become a day to honor veterans of all our wars). Generations of men and women were lost. Even more came home destroyed. WWI utterly transformed our world and we are the children of that devastation.
There are no veterans alive anymore from WWI (or very, very, very few). Each year there are fewer and fewer veterans of WWII alive. We’ve never paid heed to our veterans from Vietnam, and Korea is all but forgotten. Then there are our more recent wars. It is our duty and obligation to speak for our dead, our honor and privilege to listen to our living. We can, at the very least, give them one day, if nothing else.
Today, I remember particularly my cousin Wesley Heffner. He was part of Pershing’s Expeditionary Force, part of the first American forces to go to Europe in WWI. He was eighteen when he enlisted and never returned home. He died from wounds taken on a bloody field in France. He never made it to twenty. He enlisted out of a deep sense of patriotism and desire to do good in the world.
This is perhaps the only extant photo of Wesley. I’ve visited his grave, in a cemetery where I”m related to at least 98% of the dead lying there, and I’ve left offerings. I wonder what the world of our family would have been like had he returned, had he lived. With each person dead, a whole universe was obliterated, and the generations they would have touched. The least we can do is to remember them.
Today is also the birthday of my favorite WWII general, George S. Patton. He fought in WWI. He designed a sword, nearly medaled in the Olympics (and would have by modern scoring rubrics), was a brilliant tank tactician, and he saved the world. He was largely responsible for Allied Victory during the Battle of the Bulge (Patton and this Third Army).
So hail them. Pour out offerings. Visit their graves. Take your living veterans out to lunch. Remember them and their sacrifices throughout the year. Look for opportunities to honor them. We have built our world on their blood, bone, and suffering.
One of the things that I’ve been noticing this year is an increased awareness of the role the medical corps played in military life and combat. I’ve seen a lot more recognition of nurses and doctors this year in remembrance pieces than at any other time and I think that is good and necessary. When I honor my military dead, I try to honor those doctors and nurses and other medical people who served too. They all too often get forgotten and they shouldn’t be.(1)
One group of veterans that often get completely forgotten in WWI history is African American (or other nationality) nurses. I will admit to never having really thought about this myself (and I should have. I typically parse out military groups like the Tuskeegee Airmen in my veneration, for special recognition, because of how hard they had to fight just to be permitted to fight!); then I started seeing this movie coming up on my amazon and Netflix suggestions feed: “Searching for Augusta: the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne” about a Belgian, bi-racial nurse during WWII, and I thought: why the hell are we forgetting these women?(2) It occurs to me this happens to female military veterans in general…even now.
I don’t think that those of us who honor the military dead necessarily consciously think to include medical personnel, yet they are veterans too, every bit as much as non-medical personnel and they are the ones working on or near the front lines in many cases, to get our soldiers home, and they suffer every bit as much as any other soldier. They should be remembered too. They should be honored.
Here are a few good articles:
Here are a couple of places that I often donate to, often as an offering to Asklepios or other Healing Deities (like Eir or Hygeia) that I honor, or sometimes for the military medical dead in general:
And here is a whole list of military charities, most of them in some way connected to medical care.
Here is the documentary I noted above — definitely worth the watch!
- Nurses especially take the brunt of this when they showed every bit as much valor as the men (and sometimes women – there were always women who fought one way or another, even if they had to disguise themselves to do so) who fought. They saw daily the results of combat and in many cases, like Vietnam, nurses were damn near on the front lines unarmed. In Vietnam, my understanding is that they weren’t issued weapons of any sort and it is not unknown for medical encampments to be targeted.
- I see it happening in my first career field too, ballet. There were African American ballet dancers with Balanchine’s first company for instance, and one of them, Raven Wilkenson was truly extraordinary. They too often get erased from ballet history which leads to the bullshit that I have heard often in my career “well, no one will want to watch a [black, Asian, etc.] Swan in Swan Lake,” or “ballet doesn’t really want [insert minority of choice] dancers” and it’s utter bullshit. Tell it to Misty Copeland, Maria Tallchief, Jose Manuel Carreno, Carlos Acosta, Yuan Yuan Tan, Evelyn Cisneros, and Shiori Kase to note a few. Talent is talent. Period. This of course has nothing to do with WWI or WWII history or the military dead, but I’ve been thinking about this recently and the erasure really pisses me off. When I was training as a dancer one of the most incredibly gifted women I had the privilege of working with was an African American girl (We were young when we trained together in the first company with which I worked). Even then, I occasionally overheard the parents of other dancers saying things like “she’s the best dancer there” – she really was. Claire, to this day I envy your extensions! – “ but don’t you think it would look strange to have a black ballerina?” No, bitch, I don’t. STFU. It’s called ‘acting’ and ‘performance’ for a reason and the only prerequisite is talent. Fortunately, our director wasn’t amongst those who thought in this backward way, but I wonder at how many people were encouraged out of the field (and art and music too) by such nonsense, how much talent and genius and artistry we’ve lost because of our stupidity.
(apologies for any typos. I have a bitter migraine right now. I’m sitting here waiting for the migraine meds to kick in…)
(While I can’t find a definitive source for this image, I see it listed repeatedly as combat nurse Valya Gribkova retrieving a wounded soldier from the battlefield, WWII)
This is an excellent and entertaining series about WWI. November 11, Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day, Remembrance Day was instituted originally to honor those who served in WWI. This war changed the face of our world. It was a Ragnarok of sorts. Now, it’s pretty much no longer in living memory (that is, there are no more, or very few WWI veterans still a live. There are few people who lived through that war even as civilians still alive). WWII is also rapidly moving out of living memory with our veterans dying off and I think this is a very dangerous point at which to be. We need to remember these wars and the devastation they caused. The world as it was before them ceased to exist. We have been shaped by that devastation and not, I think for the better.
Anyway, this is a good series on the origins of WWI. All the parts can be accessed on youtube. Check it out.
This gets me every single time (despite inaccuracies — civilians wouldn’t salute for instance), every single time.
November is fast approaching and every year I spend this month specifically honoring the military dead. Being the daughter and granddaughter of Veterans, and having many, many soldiers in my line each generation as far back as I can count, I generally begin with my own personal dead and branch out from there. One of the particular groups of dead that I honor regularly is the military dead and in many ways, this is their month.
Why is it so? Partly because we’re going into the dark of winter, the season of Yule, the time when the Wild Hunt rides with Odin – God of war and warriors – at its head and partly because we celebrate Veterans (or if you’re in the UK Armistice or Remembrance) Day on November 11.(1) Originally marking the end of WWI, it very quickly became a day in the US to honor military veterans of every stripe.(2)
WWI, the Great War, the “War to End All Wars” (though now we know it so very much wasn’t) was the war that ended the world. It destroyed whatever naiveté and innocence humanity might have had left, radically and viciously destroyed the overarching structure of the pre-war world (which in turn paved the way for the depredations of communism, Nazism, and the most soulless aspects of modernity), and paved the way for WWII.(3) It destroyed a generation, leveled it, rendered and decimated its ranks of young men. Even those who came back were often broken beyond repair. It was a Ragnarok for the generation that survived it.
Each November, every day of the month, I post something relevant to honoring our military dead. This month, I would like to encourage you to also post (here or on your own blogs) stories of the veterans in your family. Tell me about your military dead, share their memories if you have been entrusted with them (it is a great gift to be so), share pictures and prayers. Each and every one of us here has soldiers and warriors in their line. We have those men and sometimes women who either through choice or through desperation took up arms to defend their traditions, families, communities, and homes. We are here because they made brutally hard decisions. We are here because they did this knowing they might die and that even if they didn’t die, they’d never, ever be quite the same again. We are here because some of our ancestors walked into hell for us. It is worth remembering, worth telling their stories, worth reminding ourselves what valor is and what sacrifice looks like. It’s worth reminding ourselves so we don’t continue throwing way our men and women pointlessly. It’s worth remembering so that we have the opportunity to wake ourselves up out of our apathetic stupor and gather into the halls of heart and memory these men and women who gave so much for those they would never see and never know, who mostly just wanted to get home to their families, and who so often did not do that.
Honoring the military dead, or any of our dead for that matter, is welcoming them again into the community of living memory. It is restoring them to life and restoring us as well. It renews, again and again – every time we pour out an offering, chant a prayer, or call their names with reverence—that vital, visceral connection with those who have preceded us. It restores that ancient contract. It renews the best part of our humanity.
So this November, as I begin this month of remembrance, please share the stories of your military dead too, that more may know them, honor them, and remember.
- To be totally accurate, Memorial Day in May is the day when we in the US honor those who have died in our wars. Veterans Day is traditionally when we honor those living who have made it home. That being said, November is a powerful month for the military dead so I try to balance remembrance of those long past with active work for those living.
- Instituted by Woodrow Wilson in 1919 as a federal holiday, I’m just waiting for social justice agitators to take a run at it, Wilson as with every other historical figure, being problematic in their rather narrow and historically anachronistic world. I’m no fan of Wilson either, truth be told, but this was one good thing that he did. In the UK, I believe the focus is still very much on remembering those who died in WWI and the devastation of that terrible War. (UK friends, please correct me if I’m wrong!).
- So much so, that I’m often tempted to consider WWII a continuation of WWI rather than a separate war.
by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Every so often I return to genealogy research. I have to be careful – I can get sucked down the genealogy whirlpool for hours and hours or even days if I’m not careful. Ancestry.com recently partnered with Fold3.com which allows one to search military records and somewhere in a couple of hours of random searching, I discovered that my great grandmother’s nephew had fought and died in WWI.
I don’t know much about him. I’ve got queries out to Heffner genealogists but I’ve made a complete hash of my ancestry.com chart (I was tired one night and merged information for him, his father, and another John Wesley Heffner so now I need to go sort through all the documents and sort it out, a task I’m not looking forward to doing), but here’s what I know.
Wesley Heffner was born on April 30, 1898 in Chanceford Township, PA. He was the son of Amos Heffner and his wife Lottie Ardella (“Della”) Heffner nee Welsh.
He served in Hoboken and was fighting in France from June 14, 1917 to June 5, 1918 — according to his mother’s application for a military pension (apparently if a young man was unmarried, their mothers could apply for a pension at that time, or at least so it seems) and went overseas with Pershing’s first contingent. He was a private first class in Company B, 26th Infantry. He did not come home again.
I have so many questions, so many things that I would like to know about him. Is he buried in France where he died or is he buried here in the states and if so, where? Are there any extant photos? What made him enlist?
When Pershing’s forces first went over it was standard operating procedure to bury the soldiers in the land where they fell. This didn’t sit well with the folks back home and pressure was put on the military to bring their sons back. In an article that made me cry, about WWI, burying our dead, and bringing them home again we’re given a vivid picture of General Pershing facing the atrocious body count of that ‘great’ war:
“THE GENERAL WEPT when he heard the news. About 3 a.m. on November 3, 1917, German troops overran an isolated Allied outpost near Verdun, killing three men from the 16th Infantry who had slipped into the trenches for their combat debut only hours before. These were the first of Jack Pershing’s men to die in the Great War. One was shot between the eyes; another had his skull smashed. The third was found face down, his throat cut. All three were buried near where they had died, amid the beautiful rolling hills of northeastern France. This was as it should be, General Pershing believed. There was no time to bring fallen soldiers back to the States, he said, nor any space on ships crossing the Atlantic. And he couldn’t bear to think of mothers opening caskets to see their boys ravaged by the fearsome new weapons of the industrial era. Within days, however, the War Department discovered that the families and friends of the dead thought differently. Letters and telegrams arrived in Washington asking when the soldiers’ remains would be shipped home. Grand funerals were planned. No matter that the men had died an ocean away or that the war was still going on. Bring them home. This was a refrain Pershing and the military establishment would hear for the rest of the war, indeed, for years afterward. History had given the American people definite ideas about what to do with the war dead. And they weren’t to be denied.”
Read the full article here.
Bring them home. I would like to know if my great great uncle was ever brought home.
There is so much I don’t know but at least I have a name. At least I know he exists and I know he fought and I know that he died somewhere on a bloody field in France. It’s a start. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.
Edit: before I posted this, I actually found a picture of his grave. My great great uncle is buried in Chanceford Township, PA, in St. Luke’s Lutheran Cemetery. I will have a chance to visit his grave, and that of his parents when next I go down to MD. I’ll make a detour to PA. This doesn’t necessarily mean that his body is there – it could have been just a grave with the body actually buried in a field in France, but all things considered, and given what I know of my family, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s his actual in situ grave. I wonder now whether he was shipped back immediately or only after the war…and what it must have been like for his family, first to receive notification of his death (sent to his father Amos) and then his body. How was he remembered by his brothers and sisters (he had 14 siblings) and what stories might they have told?