Updated: June 28, 2013 6:15AM
On this Memorial Day, Modie Lavin will spend the day with her son, Marine Cpl. Conner T. Lowry, at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Alsip.
“I’ll be hanging out with him,” she says.
Mrs. Lavin’s plan is to sit beside her son’s grave in a folding chair and play his favorite music on an iPod, beginning perhaps with Jack Johnson. She will bring her son a guitar pick and a beer. She will tell him what she has been up to, as families do, and how much she has missed him since March 1, 2012, the day he was killed in combat in Afghanistan.
How much is that?
“Your heart and soul are broken and you just know you have to learn to live with it,” she says, her voice broken, too. “Grief is such a personal thing. Nobody can tell you when you’re through.”
On Memorial Day, we would like to remember and honor every man and woman who ever died while serving in America’s armed forces, but death in volume is an abstraction. More than 2,000 military men and woman have been killed in Afghanistan. Almost 4,500 have been killed in Iraq. More than 1.3 million have been killed in all American wars since 1775.
Allow us, instead, to tell you more about Cpl. Lowry, who was 24, with the understanding that he represents all our honored war dead. Every one of them loved and was loved, left us too soon, and lives in our collective heart forever. Every one of them reminds us of the agonizing cost of war and why we must resist the saber rattlers who would drag us into unnecessary new ones.
Conner grew up in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, a tall kid with a big personality and a personal motto to match: “Live life large.” He liked baseball, football, the guitar and Brother Rice High School, but not so much college, where he put in a couple of years. He thought the Marines might do him some good while he did his country some good.
“He loved America,” Mrs. Lavin said with a laugh. “He loved Chicago even more.”
“He wanted to help people,” Conner’s grandmother, Anne Whealan added.
But they worried about his safety from the start.
“It wasn’t anything we were thrilled about, to be honest,” Mrs. Whealan said.
In these days of a volunteer military, a common misperception is that many or most young men and women who join up are poor, can’t find work back home and have no prospects. Conner’s story, research shows, comes closer to the truth — a major motivation is simply patriotism.
Contrary to the notion of an “economic draft,” according to a 2010 Stony Brook University study of 1,446 American casualties in the war in Afghanistan, those killed did not come from “economically distressed areas with few economic prospects compared to the rest of the country.” They were, in fact, “disproportionately white and Native American working-class young people with no more than a high school education.”
For the great majority of them, the researchers concluded, “a desire to serve the country and other patriotic reasons” figured heavily in their decision to sign up.
They did it for us, that is to say, as much as for themselves.
Mrs. Lavin expects her son will have visitors other than family on Memorial Day. Among them, she says, likely will be a few men who will place coins on her son’s tombstone. It’s a Marine tradition.
A penny says you are a fellow Marine. A nickel says you went through boot camp together. A dime says you served together in some capacity. A quarter says you were there when the Marine whose name is on the tombstone was killed.
Memorial Day doesn’t ask for much of us. It’s mostly about picnics and parades.
It asks only for our thoughts, for a penny or none, for those who died for us.