Four black bracelets engraved with the names of friends killed in war sit on a shelf above Sergeant First Class Tiffany Abriam’s desk in an ROTC office at BYU-Idaho. On each of them are the dates the four soldiers were killed and the time Abriam was deployed with them in Baqubah, Iraq.
If these simple memorials had eyes, they would observe Abriam and the other veterans she works with come and go during the week, fulfilling their duties in training the next generation of military men and women.
“For people that may not understand or may not have ties with Memorial Day or Veterans Day, it’s a day off,” Abriam said. “For us, it’s a day of remembering people that we’ve lost or people that our family has lost that we may not remember directly.”
Abriam enlisted in 2000, in those moments before America was rocked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and began its war on terror. Abriam’s first assignment was to secure the Pentagon after the attacks in 2001.
Abriam enlisted while in college at a time when she did not have a concrete idea of where to go in life. But she fell in love with the military, finding she was a good leader and mentor.
While some of Abriam’s students may see Memorial Day as a holiday that gives them a three-day weekend, those four bracelets that face her when she comes in to work each day are a reason she sees the day in a different light.
“A holiday to me is something that you celebrate,” she said. “Memorial Day is nothing that you celebrate, and Veterans Day, too.”
Captain Uriah Watkins, the officer in charge of BYU-I’s ROTC program, said he joined the Army about 16 years ago because he wanted to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and enlisting was a way to fund it.
“We’re just normal people just trying to do a good job,” he said.
Watkins said he believes that some people see soldiers portrayed in movies and video games and get an idea that those who serve in the military are super-human or robots.
In some ways, the time he spends with his family on Memorial Day may look very much like any of his neighbors’. He enjoys barbecuing out in his backyard, and maybe he’ll find himself doing some of that while off from work, but he said that many in the military will reflect on experiences they’ve been through and friends who have passed.
“Most of us spend it with our families,” he said.
Watkins also said he knows a lot of people who will visit the graves of friends. He hopes that during Memorial Day, people remember the sacrifices of military men and women.
Watkins said deployments are a lot harder as a father and husband than they seemed like they would be when he enlisted right out of high school; back then, he was unattached. Now, when his unit deploys, he leaves a wife and four kids at home.
“The family is the other big part of this,” Watkins said. “They’re kind of the unspoken heroes in the military.”
He recognizes that, for him, deployment means working 24/7, keeping busy. Meanwhile, his family waits, half a world away, for a phone call or an email from him.
“I would say it’s exponentially more difficult for the family members,” he said.
Colonel Guy Hollingsworth, a professor in the foundations and interdisciplinary studies department, will retire this fall from a military career that spans over 40 years. He said that even as a part-time soldier, he has calculated that his time dedicated to the Army on weekend assignments, deployments and everything in between adds up to 14 years of time spent away from his wife.
“When you look around at people who have made a career in the military, whether it be a solider or a sailor or airman or a Marine, it’s a big commitment,” he said. “It’s not just the individual, but often, it’s the family that sacrifices and worries.”
And yet for Hollingsworth, he felt a need to continue his service and aid the United States’ efforts in the Middle East. He said his decision was also affected by the death of friends.
“I’ve lost some friends, good friends, that never came home — that did come home, but they came home in a box with (an) American flag draped over their bodies — and I met some of them at the airport when they got back to the states, and I spoke at funerals and looked at wives who were young ladies,” Hollingsworth said.
He said one fallen friend left behind a wife and three young children.
“Those kind of things have an impact on you, and I said, ‘I need to keep doing this. This is a worthy cause,’” he said.
But knowing it is a worthy cause does not make it an easy task.
“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s hard to see their families, and it’s hard to know that they’ve given it the ultimate sacrifice. And sometimes, it’s hard to wake up and say, ‘I still want to do this.’”
And yet Hollingsworth and other members of the armed forces find something in their service that outweighs the struggles and has sparked in them a dedication that carries them through their service, no matter the length.
Hollingsworth said he knows that people put flags out on graves for Memorial Day and hopes that those who are not in the military will be grateful for those who have served to protect their freedoms, no matter if that service has been in the last decade or the last century.
“I think there’s something special to say about the person who gave all and is no longer with us and was maybe taken from this life earlier than they wanted to be,” Hollingsworth said. “And Memorial Day allows us to recall that.”
He also said he recognizes that only a small percentage of people enlist in the military and thinks that it is important to appreciate their service.
“The reason that we can go out on this next Monday and put flowers out and visit with family and enjoy the day is because of people like that, who wore the uniform and said, ‘You know, this freedom’s worth it,’ and paid the ultimate price,” he said.