Have you ever heard the term “Decoration Day” by someone in your family or among your friends? We used to refer to Memorial Day as “Decoration Day” for specific reasons. Sure, we decorate the graves of others over this weekend specifically, but the core of this federal holiday is slowly becoming lost I fear and I wanted to pen a note for your contemplation. Not for a second am I suggesting we skip placing flowers, flags, and decoration atop the graves of our loved ones, family, and friends of days gone by. However, this holiday, rightly, is specifically tailored to honor our country’s military personnel whose lives were forfeit while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
I make every attempt this weekend each year to think about a soldier’s personal touch on our lives as he or she lived, rather than solely how they gave their life. I have often heard my dad refer to his then best friend, Howard Cox, who served in Vietnam. Dad has spoken freely and often about Howard. It has been obvious to me over the many years he and I have enjoyed together that he misses his friend. More obvious is the fact they must have been pretty tight. This year, as I pondered that, I decided to call my Dad up and ask for a better understanding of Howard.
Howard’s middle name, Max, was applied under grim circumstances. For his uncle, Max Cox was fighting in the Pacific during WWII. Upon his birth Howard’s folks named him Howard Max Cox after his uncle who all feared would not return from the islands alive. Fate saw otherwise, wounded and bound to a stretcher that was hidden so well in the jungle even his brothers in arms couldn’t remember where to find him, Max survived his injuries to return home to his family and infant nephew. Named in no small part for his uncle Max who was looking headlong at death during battle, it was Howard who wouldn’t return home among the living.
Lance Corporal Howard Max Cox, C CO, 1ST BN, 5TH MARINES, 1ST MARDIV, III MAF, United States Marine Corps was quite a character as near as I can tell. Just about like any energetic rural Iowa farm boy, he worked hard and played hard. Dad shared with me several stories, all of which made me smile and a few that made me chuckle. One or two came with an asterisk of course, “You shouldn’t share that one,” Dad would giggle and mention after he was done reliving it for me… My Dad and Howard sounded a lot like me and my buddies as he shared some of the stories – even the ‘screwdrivers’ they mixed up in college one night with vodka and orange juice that foolishly continued to be labeled ‘screwdrivers’ long after they had run out of orange juice – that sounded eerily familiar.
Howard was a phenomenal athlete as I understand it. He strong and sleek, as most farm boys are, and he set records in track, baseball, and football at Bedford High School in South West Iowa. He and my dad were best friends in High School and both worked to save up some money to attend college in Maryville, MO. Howard mowed ditches for the county and Dad worked the farm and took odd jobs to fund college. Howard intended on becoming a coach and from what Dad describes of his intellect, drive, and leadership qualities, he’d have been a fine coach.
I’ve attached a couple of pictures I found and Dad verified they were most certainly Howard. Dad joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Iran for a couple of years. A little over a year after Dad left for the Middle East, Howard joined the Marines – August of 1967. Howard and the 5th Marines were sent into Hue City after the Tet Offensive to drive out the NVA. The Siege of Hue, as it is often called, was a terrible and bloody prolonged battle. Howard was wounded by small arms fire and evacuated to a military hospital in Da Nang on February 21st, 1968. Howard died the following day at the age of 22, on the 22nd of February.
When I showed my Dad the pictures I had found, he mentioned something profound and solemn to me. “The first and last time I ever saw Howard in his Marine uniform, was in his casket.” Dad had returned from two years in Iran with the Peace Corps and was headed into the Army right after Howard’s funeral. To see your best friend in his uniform for the first and last time, laid perfectly in a coffin, as you prepare to head off to basic training must have been a very heavy lift for my Dad. The lowering of his voice and change in timber indicated to me he was most likely thinking of standing over his friend as he mentioned that small but enormous truth to me. Dad and I are a lot alike, and I imagine he even remembered things as subtle as the scent of the church that day, the tear-stained cheek of Gladys Cox, Howard’s biggest and most animated fan at his ball games, and certainly Kenneth’s warm handshake and embrace as a father committing his son’s body to the Earth. Those thoughts rattle around in my head, as they are the kinds of things I too remember when I attempt to help others through their losses. Dad uses his five senses. As do I. I wonder if he occasionally wishes he didn’t, just as I.
I seek not to come across as the bummer of an otherwise great barbequing weekend for you all. Rather, as a reminder of the incumbent responsibility on us all to consider this day in context as we remember, honor, and mourn the loss of this brotherhood of military service. I leave you with this from the Gospel of John. 15:13 – Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.