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In Memoriam: A Reflection on Living in the After

In the United States, Monday is Memorial Day. For many Americans, this holiday marks the start of summer. We close the office, move the white clothes to the front of the closet, barbeque, and don the season's first sunburn. There's much to celebrate.

For me, Memorial Day is sobering. It stirs a peculiar psychological amalgam of gratitude, sadness, survivor's guilt, and resolve. The last Monday in May doesn't make me think of sticky summer heat or sales on shorts and flip-flops. It brings back a bone-chilling cold January day that rocked my world in the hardest, deepest way. On January 8, 2014, I stood at the Air Force Academy Cemetery and witnessed a young woman live one of my worst nightmares. Through tears, she watched her husband's flag-draped coffin disappear into the ground.

My freezing feet went numb as I listened to the 21-gun salute. Smoke hung in the air.

Ready, aim, fire

Ready, aim, fire.

Ready, aim, fire.

The bugler stepped out and played Taps. If sorrow was a song, it would sound like this. My attention snapped back to the flag. The honor guard folded it over Dave's body. First in halves, then in quarters. They turned the red, white, and blue rectangle into a triangle. It shrunk and tightened. Then, it was placed in Dana's hands. And then I listened to the words no military spouse ever wants to hear:

"On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for David's honorable and faithful service."

Captain David Lyon died on December 27, 2013, when enemy forces attacked his convoy in Afghanistan. Dave and my husband Philip had spent their tour that year performing a Combat Advisory mission with Afghan National Army Commandos. They loved the work. They volunteered to be there. My husband served as Dave's military escort out of the theater and accompanied his body back to Dover. For one last time, they were side-by-side in the belly of a C-17.

Every time Philip deployed, I knew he'd come home–I just could never be certain whether he'd walk off the plane or be carried in a box. Goodbyes were intense. When I watched his uniform disappear, I knew it might be the last time I saw him alive.

Dave's death changed my husband. It marked us. That cold day in January is why we stay. It's the epitome of why we serve. Dave's legacy is our Memorial. Every day.

I've been married to the military for sixteen sweet and bitter years. It's been a trip. Mostly, it's amazing. Hard. But so good in many ways. It's crystallized the power of living for and giving to something bigger than yourself. It's service, yes. Plenty of sacrifice for sure. But our family has gotten so much back from being part of the Air Force. It's widened our aperture, altered our perspective, and anchored us to a deep purpose.

Why did Dana Lyon bury her husband and their unlived dreams instead of me burying mine? The question will always haunt me. They sacrificed. We survived. I can't explain the tragedy. But the horrific, unchosen circumstances we lived in that dark winter clarified my priorities. They refined my decision-making with razor-sharp precision. In the wake of Dave's death, I live with more focus. I feel a greater sense of urgency.

I've done nothing to "earn" the privileges or opportunities afforded to me. As I live in the "after" of Dave’s death, I'm painfully aware that I need to make every chance I get count. My freedom, my choices–they were bought with blood. I remind myself of this when I feel my husband's embrace or hear the music of my children's voices. These are simple, everyday things, but I know the only moments I'm guaranteed are immediately in front of me. None of us know how much time we have, so we must make our days matter. We don’t get to decide when our business is finished. Having intention, impact, and purpose is how we lead lives worthy of sacrifices made on our behalf.

This Memorial Day, take less for granted. Do things that matter with people you care about. Cultivate purpose. You're part of something much bigger than you–connect to it and contribute. Use what you have to do all you can for as many people as possible. Leave a mark. Living well is how we honor those who are no longer with us.


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