On Memorial Day, we celebrate and honor members of the military for the sacrifices they have made for all of us. But Memorial Day can be tough for veterans, particularly those who’ve served in combat. The tributes and ceremonies bring back painful memories for veterans, or revive troubling questions about why they came home and others didn’t. Humana talked to three of its associates, who are veterans, about the holiday and what it means to them. Their stories are below.
Jimmy Phillips is Director of Veterans Outreach for Humana Government Business. In March 2003, Phillips was a Naval officer supervising the launch of Tomahawk missiles into Iraq aboard the USS Cape St. George. During the war, Phillips’ ship was fired upon and there were concerns about mines and SCUD missiles. Still, he says, “Ground forces experienced a different, more face-to-face threat than we did.”
Phillips and other veterans discover that coming home is a kind of Catch-22: you either return with wounds and scars or with questions about why you didn’t when others did.
“You get a group of veterans together, doesn’t matter where or when they served,” says Phillips, “there’s always a sense of guilt if you had easier duty, or even just for the fact that you made it home when other guys didn’t.”
Mike Ochs is a Humana IT Business Consultant. He served two tours in Iraq with the Army National Guard and served as an armor crewman, as well as in the military police and intelligence fields. Ochs says on Memorial Day, he knows he’ll be thinking of Lt. Colonel Michael McLaughlin.
McLaughlin and Ochs, then a staff sergeant, butted heads in their first meetings because of their different approaches to information gathering and intelligence efforts. Eventually they earned each other’s respect and started working well together. “From him, I learned so much about how to effectively communicate with people in high leadership positions,” Ochs says. “It helps me to this day.”
McLaughlin visited a glass factory in Anbar province as part of the Army’s efforts to recruit for the Iraqi police force. “We thought it was safe. We had barriers and overlapping security,” Ochs says. A suicide bomber snuck in and the explosion sent shrapnel flying. “A piece struck the Lt. Colonel in the back of the neck as he was talking to our Brigade Commander. He kept talking for a few minutes more and then just fell over.” One other American and 80 Iraqis died along with McLaughlin in that attack.
Seven years later, Ochs says, “I pray for him every Sunday at church, and other times, too. He was a good man. Sometimes I wonder, ‘why did it have to be this way?’”
Humana account executive Gregg Spieth has asked that question countless times since the day in 1969 when Billy Northington called his name.
The two men served together in Vietnam in the 1st Battalion 9th Marines, a unit known for sustaining casualties so heavy it was nicknamed “The Walking Dead.” Their unit was moving along a dirt road under jungle canopy one day when, “bullets started coming down from the trees,” Spieth recalls. “I fell on my back and started firing upward. I heard Billy yell, ‘Gregg, Gregg! Help me!’”
When the firefight ended, Spieth ran to his friend, but it was too late. Spieth has relived that day, that moment, over and over, reaching a conclusion common among combat veterans: “I didn’t do everything possible to save him. I should have been the one who was carried back.” He struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for years, costing him jobs, relationships and contributing to a 1997 heart attack that changed his perspective.
“I learned to let go of grief,” he says. “Life is for loving.”
“Memorial Day,” Spieth says, “is a quiet, private time for me.” He says the holiday is important, but perhaps more for civilians than soldiers, who need no prompting to remember their comrades.
Spieth no longer asks why things worked out the way they did for himself or any other soldiers. He says that some questions have no answers.
Support for veterans, military service members and their families
Humana is committed to providing job opportunities for our nation’s veterans. For more information about and Humana’s Veterans Initiative, click here.