Young Boy Placing Flags on Veterans Grave


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In these days leading up to Memorial Day, you're going to see sales at every retail giant under the sun and grocery ads geared toward backyard barbecues. You'll roll your eyes when gas prices surge in time for the weekend travel surplus. You might even have Monday off from work so you can bask in the sun and the glory of that new lawn chair you scored for half-off. 

And while I typically write articles about affordable living, cheap hacks, and sales (I do write for Cheapism, after all), I know that a different kind of price was paid so we can enjoy the impending three-day weekend. Brave soldiers fought for our country and our freedoms, and thousands have given the ultimate sacrifice — their lives. On Memorial Day, we honor and remember those soldiers. 

While some people without a personal connection to Memorial Day's true meaning might have another view of the day, others are unable to escape its harsh reality. For some of us, that reminder never really goes away and creeps in like a thief in the night on the last Monday of May every year.

That reality became mine at 18 years old, when I twisted the doorknob of my parents' home, responding to that knock every military family dreads. Standing on the other side were two Army officers, wearing their dress blues and holding their hats in their hands, chins tucked to their chests. The words "we're so sorry," rushed into the room and I remember physically resisting the urge to shut the door, as though their words would leave with them. 

I didn't shut the door. And the words kept coming. Along with them came the realization that my best friend in the world was gone. My brother, Sgt. Joseph M. Lilly, was killed in the line of duty. He drew his last breath in a hospital in Afghanistan, and not a single member of his family got to tell him goodbye. 

Those moments felt like an out-of-body experience — it was like I was watching a movie on mute. The Army officers were talking to my parents and me, but I didn't hear anything they said. I was looking at them, but I was picturing my brother and I playing "horsey" in the living room — he crawled around while I sat on his back and yelled "giddy up!" I pictured him holding my hand while he took me trick-or-treating in his Army uniform, yelling quotes from "Stripes" (my favorite comedy). 

I thought about the road trip I took with him from Michigan to Fort Leonardwood, Missouri. And I pictured his glossy-eyed, red-cheeked face with a shit-eating grin on it as he held his newborn son for the first time. Those officers were telling us that our soldier had been killed in action, but all I could think about was how I lost my brother. He wasn't just a soldier. He was my brother. He was my parents' son. He was my nephew's father. And I'll be damned if I ever hear about a soldier dying and don't think about whose world might be crumbling down around them because of that sacrifice. 

Sgt. Joseph M. LillyPhoto credit: Rachel Schneider/Cheapism

When my brother first deployed, I remember seeing the numbers of U.S. soldiers who had been killed in action in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars along the bottom of the TV screen. I saw them as numbers. That's all they were. It wasn't going to be my brother, because I had that little sister's naive "he's an invincible superhero" mentality. 

Today, between the wars in those two countries, there have been more than 7,000 U.S. soldiers killed in action. Another 30,177 U.S. service members have taken their own lives (and that number will more than likely increase by the time I finish writing this article — let that sink in). Without support, recognition, and gratitude, and without the right resources, the traumas our veterans experience post-war are — quite literally — deadly. Reading those statistics, my throat swelled and my heart started beating faster. Eleven years later, those still feel more like a gut punch than "just numbers." Each one of those soldiers left behind a web of family and friends.

I'm not saying you shouldn't jump on that incredible dishwasher deal if yours is on the fritz. You should. And you should call your friends and invite them over for dinner on the grill. Spend the day on the water or in the sun. Enjoy the freedoms those brothers and sisters in arms bought for you with their lives. All the while, remember that. Remember that your freedom isn't and has never been completely free.

The pain that engulfed me when I lost my brother was the deepest pain I've ever felt. Grief took one look at me and swallowed me whole. But the support my family had at his funeral felt like one of my brother's biggest, warmest bear hugs. When we arrived at the funeral home, the room was full and the excess of guests stood in the parking lot for the service. There were more strangers at his funeral than there were people who knew him, and there were a lotof people there who knew him. 

I delivered the eulogy, which I wrote and read from a piece of paper that I tucked beneath his hand when we said our final goodbye. En route to the funeral home, there were strangers lining the streets for miles with their hats off, holding little American flags. That warm hug of strangers' support is something every left-behind family member, friend, or fellow soldier should feel when they lose their own soldier.

What You Can do This Memorial Day Weekend

If you are one of those people who's lost a soldier, organizations like TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), and America's Gold Star Families, offer programs and events to provide support. 

If you're looking to pay your respects on Memorial Day, you can attend a local memorial service, take a moment of silence to think about the fallen soldiers and thank them for their sacrifice, visit a military cemetery, or donate to The Memorial Day Foundation

And if you are a veteran in crisis or contemplating taking your own life, you can dial 988 and press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line for 24/7 confidential support. 

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