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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 05/26/23 – Memorial Day 2023 The Ballad of Ira Hayes

Johnny Cash released a song in 1964, the Ballad of Ira Hayes – it was on the Bitter Tears Album, written to honor the history of Native Americans. The Ira Hayes song covered issues that were just not spoken about in that era, timeless themes of trauma, oppression, human resilience, addiction, and tragic death. It met resistance and was initially banned.

The refrain:

Call him drunken Ira Hayes

He won't answer anymore

Not the whiskey drinking Indian

Or the marine that went to war

In 1970, Cash played the Nixon White House. The year is on the leading edge of my memory. He was not as supportive of the war in Vietnam as the administration had hoped. Then as now, the nation was split on deep ideological fissures. Like many artists and performers across human history, Cash used his gift to shed light on things we had difficulty facing. While he did not perform the Ballad of Ira Hayes at the White House, he did sing about his concern and his support for young people speaking out against the war. He helped bring sensitive issues into the public discourse.

In writing this piece, I researched Ira Hayes. He was Native American, and a member of the Pima tribe. He was one of the six soldiers who raised the flag over Iwo Jima depicted in the famous photograph. Iwo Jima was one of our bloodiest and most difficult battles. The battle served little if any strategic value. But we sent in soldiers and they did as soldiers do, which is follow orders. Many died in the battle and afterwards in invisible ways, also an ageless theme across history.

After the war, like many, Hayes suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. On November 10, 1954, he attended the dedication of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, which was modeled on Hayes and the five other Marines raising the second flag on Iwo Jima. Just a few weeks later, after a night of drinking he died in a ditch in Sacaton, Arizona of exposure to cold and alcohol poisoning. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on February 2, 1955, less than 90 days after attending the unveiling of the USMC Memorial in that very place in the shadow of the memorial he had helped dedicate.

As a student of history, I have found that some of our most patriotic Americans are members of groups we have not treated very well. They are keenly aware of the deep flaws we have and how we have often failed to live up to our lofty ideals in ways that harm them directly. Yet they love our country. I would surmise that they love what we stand for even as we fall short of what we could be. They have hope for us despite our many shortcomings. They hold out hope that we may form a more perfect union over time. My sense as a deeply patriotic American is that we owe them our best effort to work towards these ideals, for all Americans. That is our duty as I see it.

This weekend, we celebrate Memorial Day AKA Decoration Day, honoring those who died in armed service of our nation, first observed on May 30, 1868. According to this web site that keeps an ongoing calculation, we have lost over 520,000 Americans in armed conflict since the Revolutionary war. I suspect that it is a fraction of the true number of those lost. Ira Hayes is not counted here, friends I have lost who suffered consequences of what they saw and did are not counted here, thousands of other Americans are not counted here. It is my hope we think about all those we lose from addiction, mental health issues and suicide this weekend. They count too.

As of 2020, according to a report published by the VA, an average 16.8 per day die from suicide. Vets overdose mortality rates increased by 53% from 2010–2019. There is a correlation between combat and alcohol misuse, 25% of those who were sampled were misusing alcohol 3-4 months after deployment. 1 out of 10 Veterans who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan are diagnosed with alcohol or drug misuse. These losses and consequences need to be in our memory too.

This Memorial Day, I am grateful for our vets, some who sacrificed all so we can have picnic food this weekend and a sense of security every day of our lives, something that many of those who serve lose as a result of their combat experience. I am grateful for Johnny Cash for memorializing Ira Hayes. I am grateful to live in a country with lofty ideals despite the fact that we do not always live up to them. Grateful to be able to experience some down time this weekend and consider what others paid forward for us and how we may do the same for the next generation.

What are you grateful for today?

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