Dedicated to Marine Sgt. John P. Huling of West Chester, OH who was killed in Afghanistan just days before his 26th birthday. His mother, Debbie, worked 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 that 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 cemetery 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 huffed out a loud breath, pleaded with his eyes, and said: “You know, I was an electrician. I was important, I contributed to society, and I worked in a great hotel for 30 years. Now I sit here and watch life go by. I’m handicapped and useless.”

Not exactly a cheerful parade conversation.

I tried to see things from his point of view but 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 couldn’t find any words. So in silence, Uncle John, Aaron, and I sat side-by-side, almost touching– yet thousands of miles away.

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 an 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 for the rest of the year? Would the anti-DEI crowd who opposed Diversity-Equality-Inclusion keep working against us? Would he get the support he needed to live, work, and become part of the community?

Disabled and Yet-to-be Disabled

As Ed Roberts used to say, 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.” 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 on 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.

On this Memorial Day Aaron and I will wave a couple of flags to celebrate America … both of us are competent, contributing members of our community and fight for the Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion of all the people in America.

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,


Comments: Come on, I know you want to share some memories of your own Memorial Day Parade, family reunion, attitudes about disabilities, and “Handicapped.” You all have 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?