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Memorial Day Parades| Attitudes about disabilities

Dedicated to Marine Sgt. John P. Huling of West Chester, OH who was killed in Afganistan just days before his 26th birthday. His mother, Debbie, works with my husband Tom. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetary Memorial Day Weekend, 2012.

Color Guard
Creative Commons License photo credit: Envios

Ever wonder who puts all those flags on the graves of veterans?


Memorial Day is a celebration across communities in America which helps us remember our basic values and the soldiers who fought and died for them. Usually, it also includes a parade, one of my favorite parts of the holiday.

Several years ago my family sat in lawn chairs in our local cemetary watching the parade of Little League teams, high school marching bands, veterans in uniforms of many wars, and politicians in their red, white and blue ties.

The cemetery was beautiful. The lawns were like carpet. American flags marked each tombstone. The flowers colored the grounds with reds and whites. Everyone was feeling damn patriotic.

Everyone except my uncle John. He turned to me and said, “I wasn’t always handicapped.”

I raised my eyebrows and wondered where this came from. Uncle John was never a happy person, but since he had a stroke, he’d become a weary soul. We’d hoped this celebration would lift his spirits.

After all, who doesn’t like a parade?

Uncle John explained. “You know, I was an electrician. I was important, I contributed, I worked in a great hotel for 30 years. Now I just sit here and watch life go by. I’m handicapped and useless.”

Not exactly cheerful parade conversation.

I couldn’t resist. “Uncle John, having a handicap isn’t the end of the world. Can you enjoy the parade? Look at those little kids jumping up and down on their decorated wagons.”

“You just don’t understand,” he said. “I’m not like him.”

And he pointed to my son Aaron, his nephew who has the label of autism.

Some Battles Can’t be Won

I felt I needed to say something, but I couldn’t find any words. So in silence, Uncle John, me and Aaron sat side-by-side, almost touching, yet thousands of miles away from each other.

What Attitudes and Freedoms do we Celebrate?

Some of the veterans in the parade were old with worn faces and bodies. Did our society value them?

Some soldiers were younger than Aaron… and their youth was shattered in the deserts and mountains of strange lands.

Some veterans carried labels of “handicapped and disability.”

And as the crowd cheered and waved, I wondered if these brave men and women would ever be truly accepted into our society.

Would others like uncle John say they were “useless”? Would they only see the handicap?

Would they consider these wounded warriors better than people born disabled, because the soldiers were once whole and then “damaged” fighting for our country?

During the ceremony, a soldier in a wheelchair got some sort of award, and the crowd clapped. I wondered if the community would further support him as he integrated back into society, or was his token wall plaque on Memorial Day the end?

Would people segregate, discriminate and ignore him the rest of the year?

Would he get the support he needed to live, work and become part of the community?

Disabled and Yet-to-be Disabled

I often wonder if everyone understand there are only two groups of people in this world–the disabled, and the yet-to-be-disabled? If we live long enough, each of us will have a disability.

It’s something to think about.

I asked uncle John if he noticed how the cemetery grounds looked. I told him Aaron worked at this cemetery. He and the landscaping crew had disabilities.

And with support, they weren’t handicapped and “useless.”

In fact, they were the ones who made the grounds look so beautiful.

Uncle John died a couple of months later–old, bitter and handicapped. He never understood that people with disabilities could do all sorts of things.

He saw only what they couldn’t do. He focused only of what he couldn’t do.

And he’d missed the joy, pride and purpose of the Memorial Day celebration – just like he missed the joy of Aaron and the joys in his own life.

This Memorial Day, I think Aaron and I will wave a couple of flags in celebration of America… both of us competent, contributing members of our community.

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,


Comments: Come on, I know you want to share some memory of your own Memorial Day Parade, family reunion, attitudes about disabilities and “Handicapped.” You all have lots of ideas, let us know what you are thinking.

Related Stories:

Perske talks about people with disabilities and WW2.

Aimee Mullins and Survival of the Fittest

What makes you special? A Soldier story

Do the words disability and handicapped mean the same thing?

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6 Responses to “Memorial Day Parades| Attitudes about disabilities”

  • Margaret Lehmenkuler says:

    On Memorial Day my family has always kept it as a family affair. A time for us all to get together and really enjoy each others company. I have four cousins that are in the military and three of them have been over seas. Thankfully none of them were injured and they are all home safe and sound, but even they have a hard time going back into the life that they left behind. They can’t undo the things that they experienced and I know that it is hard for all of them. Even though they look “normal” or act “normal” they aren’t. They will never really be “normal” again, and I know that in my family we make sure that they are aware that we have there support no matter what. This article has a lot of truth. It is sad that people can not see the value that they have, but it is also great for the people who know that they are valued, disabled or not.

    • Mary says:

      Hi Margaret,
      I’m sure your family’s support means so much to your cousins. I can’t even imagine what their experiences were like. War is just a terrible thing and the wounds (visible or not) will last a lifetime.

      I’m sure you give them extra attention and include them in your family activities. Tough to know what to do, just ask them.

  • Barbara @therextras says:

    Beautiful & poignant post, Mary. I, too, have known people who cannot accept the changes of aging, sometimes debilitating. I see this as more evidence of our individuality – and must accept those who can/do not adapt.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      That’s a good way of putting it Barbara, it is about accepting the changes: aging…abilities…adapting to life. Thanks for giving us your thoughts.

  • Sigh. I hate it when I read about soldier deaths. As a mother of boys, I identify totally with the mothers of these lads, whose sons get killed doing their job and the desperate, desperate sadness of it. And that’s before we even start thinking of the point of it all.

    Frankly, I think Uncle John is happier where he is, and so are we. Memorial Day is a day of celebration and remembering. We will never forget and those cemetery memorials should be etched in our brains whenever we get down on ourselves.
    Alison Golden recently posted..5 Inspiring and Unconventional Personal Development Blogs You Should Read

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      You are right Alison, the deaths of soldiers and our young people just make us think of the complexity of life. We can only hope we learn the lessons of war and peace–and remember.

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