Amidst a morning of ceremonies and renditions of historical speeches aimed at honoring veterans who died during their service, it was the words of a living soldier that brought the meaning of it all back down to Earth.
Amidst a second consecutive day of immaculate weather, and following a morning of ceremonies and renditions of historical speeches aimed at honoring members of the armed services who had fought and died in wars throughout America’s history, it was the voice of a living soldier — who had experienced more than his share of death during his service — that brought the meaning of it all back down to Earth.
“As a combat medic in Vietnam, I had six men die in my arms as I treated them for wounds received in combat. The pain of losing that soldier never goes away,” said Bruce (Doc) F. Cotta, a Lowell, Mass. native who volunteered for service in the U.S. Army during Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. “A combat solider lives Memorial Day 365 days a year.”
Cotta’s bravery as a soldier is well documented. He received two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars for Valor in combat, and a Silver Star for Valor in combat, along with a Combat Medical Badge, the Rhode Island Cross of Gallantry, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, a Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in the Battle of Ben Cui, and the Soldier’s Medal for Heroism (the highest award granted not involving active combat).
But beyond the medals, Cotta’s personal perspective on the thin line between life and death while serving in active combat is what made his speech at the South Burial Ground on Monday morning so stirring, and so hauntingly effective.
He began the speech with lament, asking the audience what had Memorial Day become for most Americans? “Is it just a holiday? A day off from work that we're observing?” he asked. “Is it the family barbecues and picnics? Is it the lounging on the beaches and the lakes? Is that what Memorial Day has become?”
Cotta acknowledged that this is likely a byproduct of most Americans, fortunately, never being touched by the cold reality of war.
“You watch it on TV, you read it in books. You play it on video games. But have they lost a husband? Or a wife? Or a brother or a sister or a father or a mother? If they had, they'd know the ultimate sacrifice that that person gave for our country's freedom. Then they would understand what Memorial Day is all about,” he said. “Also, many Americans have never experienced the fear and the pain and the extreme sadness over the loss of a fellow soldier, which only a combat veteran could feel.”
Cotta again lamented that war is a byproduct of man’s very nature, and quoted Plato, saying that, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
“And as long as there's war, there will be casualties to honor and remember,” he continued. “And that's why we have a Memorial Day. And it's incumbent upon us veterans, and those touched by war, to teach the unenlightened what Memorial Day is really all about. We must teach the youth of America that the soldiers, marines, sailors, and aviators died protecting America because they felt their way of life was worth dying for.”
Cotta then shared what he has done since his days in the service to honor Memorial Day. He spoke of going onto the website The Virtual Wall, which lists those throughout the country who died in service to their country, and allows people to post comments on their tribute pages. He said he left his contact information for the men who had perished while he tried to save them on the battle field. He said has been able to help families find peace by talking about their loved one so many years later.
But in one particularly striking case, a woman — the widow of a lieutenant who had died in his unit — reached out to him from California. She wanted to know everything about “the love of her life who was taken far too soon,” and flew to Rhode Island to meet him.
“We talked for over two hours. Between the tears and the hugs, she finally had closure. For the first time in 40 years, she knew what had happened to the love of her life,” Cotta remembered. “And as I walked it to her rental car, she turned and hugged me one last time and said, ‘I have to touch you again. You were the last person to touch my husband alive.’”
“That, to me, is Memorial Day.”