Column: How I answer my students’ tough questions about military service

Editor’s Note: Memorial Day, a federal holiday, honors soldiers who died while serving in the U.S. military. Educator Darrell Jones, who became a teacher after retiring from 20 years of service in the Air Force, wrote about how he answers a common question from students on Memorial Day: does he know anyone who has died in service?

Here in the Deep South, we start school in August and end the last week of May. The last couple of days of school, I like to talk about Memorial Day and how it differs from Veterans Day. (Veterans Day is a day of thanks to our servicemen and women, while Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for our fallen heroes.)

My students are already out of school by Memorial Day, and like most Americans, they look forward to cookouts and family outings and have a pretty cheerful outlook about one of our country’s most somber holidays.teacherslounge

Many of my students have grandfathers and great-uncles who lost their lives in combat decades before they were born. But since our country has moved away from the draft and toward an all-volunteer force, fewer and fewer people personally know anyone who has lost their life in service to their country.

As retired USAF, I feel it is my duty to explain to them that since our country was founded, over a million service members have lost their lives at war and countless others during peacetime. My students know that I have been to the desert more than a few times and like to ask if I knew anyone who died over there. I tell them that I was an aircraft mechanic, so my friends and I were not outside the walls in combat.

Retired U.S. Air Force E-6 Technical Sergeant Darrell Jones

Retired U.S. Air Force E-6 Technical Sergeant Darrell Jones

In reality, I have lost many friends who were still on active duty when they died. As a crew chief in the USAF, I was there when bombers crashed during training flights, fighter planes went down at airshows and planes crashed in a war zone.

Anyone who has ever served is a veteran, and anyone who has served and died whether on active duty or not deserves our thanks on Memorial Day, whether they died in accidents or took their own lives.

I met Brett at Loring AFB, Maine, my first duty station. He used to give me rides to work in his beat-up VW Bug; we had to push to get the engine to kick over. Brett was always a cheerful and friendly person, a hard worker and gym rat who studied the Bible. He was the one guy who could bring you bad news and make you laugh hearing it.

As we got transferred and moved around, we lost touch, as it goes in the military. While I was deployed to Europe, our commander called a meeting to let us know that Brett had taken his own life. I felt like a failure that day — not because I thought I could stop him, but because I did not even know he was hurting.

I wish I knew why some men and women in uniform are more prone to take their own lives, but I do not. Many point to the high rate of deployments that come from fighting simultaneous wars on two fronts. What I do say to those who ask is that the military has only recently begun to focus on the suicide problem for veterans with an increased emphasis on mental health help.

I don’t share these thoughts with my students. Instead, I tell my classes about the history of Memorial Day and how it began as Decoration Day, a time to honor soldiers who died during the Civil War. Some believe the holiday originated in nearby Columbus, Mississippi, with women’s groups leaving flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in 1866. The fact that the holiday has ties to a place nearby makes it even more relatable for my kids.

My goal is to show my students the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day, without taking the joy away from the holiday. I want them to remember we can honor those who have given their lives for our country and appreciate what they have done while also cherishing the fact that we get to spend the day with friends and family.

DJ with kids

Middle school history teacher Darrell Jones with his students at Armstrong Middle School in Starkville, Mississippi. Photo courtesy of Darrell Jones

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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