Brendan O’Byrne is a former Army Infantry Sergeant that served with the 173rd Airborne. From May 2007 to July 2008, he was stationed in what is considered one of the most dangerous postings of the war – the remote Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan. Brendan is one of the central characters in the documentary films ‘Restrepo,’ ‘Korengal’ and’ ‘The Last Patrol,’ and is featured on the cover of Sebastian Junger’s book ‘War.’
For many, Memorial Day means the official kick-off to the summer season. It is a time to get together with friends, BBQ or shop one of the countless sales commemorating a long weekend. To veterans, those currently serving in the armed forces, and the families of those who died in service to us all, Memorial Day brings emotions that are impossible for most civilians to comprehend.
As a reminder about the true meaning of Memorial Day for those of you in our community, we asked Outward Bound Veteran alum Brendan O’Byrne to share what Memorial Day means to him.
It is appropriate to spend this day living your best life. To laugh, eat and surround yourself with people you love. But please also remember to spend some quiet time to reflect and, as Brendan so poignantly writes, to “remember the cost of the peace we enjoy. These gifts, gifts that we so often take for granted, were bought and paid for with invaluable currency – the lives of great human beings, like Juan S. Restrepo.”
-by Chad Spangler, National Director, Outward Bound Veterans
The True Meaning of Memorial Day
Juan Sebastian Restrepo had a brilliant smile. It could liven up a room of sad faces. It could shake shadows from the corners of a weary heart. He was our medic who took care of us, physically and mentally, in the hard mountains of Afghanistan. The first months of our deployment were filled with near constant combat and danger. Those months were incredibly tough and a lot of men struggled to stay positive. During that time Restrepo’s daily routine was to go from hooch to hooch checking on his guys and lighting the whole valley up with that smile. On incredibly tough days, when a smile was impossible, he would use his guitar to soothe what words couldn’t. He was self-taught yet one of the very best nylon string guitar players I have ever had the privilege to hear play. A rumor going around said he had played as the lead, solo guitarist for an orchestra before the military. In those painful mountains, often between firefights, he went between the hescos and sandbags, brightening the lives of anyone he met.
I remember the day he was hit.
22 JULY 07 – Korengal Valley
My boy Restrepo got shot today. Through the neck. I hate it. I didn’t know who it was until they rolled up to the gate. God, my stomach dropped. His face was dark. The thing is, it’s totally opposite how I imagined it. I thought he would be pale. I helped put him on the litter on the back of the four-wheeler. We got him to the medics. They started working until the birds got there. We got him to the bird. Going to the bird was painful. He was throwing up and just looked scary. He wasn’t doing good. This kid loved everything about life. Too talented, too much going for him. He cared about saving people. I saw him cry after Vimoto got hit because he couldn’t do anything to help him. Now it was me watching my friend get carried away not knowing if he was gonna live or die. What do you do at this point? I don’t feel prayer will help. This kid loved God. Very religious. Fairness? I don’t know what fair is. This guy has a child. A girl. Now what? I hope he pulls through. I cleaned his weapon… His gear splattered with blood. God. His gear immediately split up. Handed to guys who needed it. Who is next? I hate it.
30 minutes went by after he was lifted out of the valley before we heard any news.
He didn’t make it. Worst day yet.
In war, it was easy to know how to deal with the pain of losing a friend that was loved by so many; we got busy finding and getting after the enemy that took our friend. I spent a lot of energy in the form of hate and anger in that fight.
But what about when we get back home, how do we deal with the pain? How do we honor such a tremendous person that gave his every tomorrow for his friends, for his family, for us and for you?
When I returned home from combat, I had the opportunity and good fortune to meet Restrepo’s mother, Marcela. It was immediately clear where his beautiful heart came from. Marcela is an immigrant from Colombia. She is no stranger to war, and she had a lot to teach me about healing. She taught lessons of forgiveness; forgiveness for yourself and even your enemy. She spoke about moving past the hatred that we needed to survive in combat. She taught lessons about love in the face of the horrors of war and loss. The most important lesson for me though, was when she talked about Restrepo’s friends’ role in her life. With his loss, we are the closest thing to her son that will ever return from the war.
We have big shoes to fill.
Memorial Day is not a day to thank living veterans for their service. Rather it is for us all to pay respect to those men and women who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and way of life. Today we must remember the cost of the peace we enjoy. These gifts, gifts that we so often take for granted, were bought and paid for with invaluable currency – the lives of great human beings, like Juan S. Restrepo.
Today, I renew my vows to the dead, vows to live the very best life I can. I renew the vow to earn this great gift. Not just in the honor to the dead and their sacrifice, but also to the sacrifice of the family members of the fallen. The family members that see my military friends like me as the closest thing to their loved one that they will ever get back.
Today, I remember the smile and music of Juan Restrepo, and hope the way I am living my life honors his memory and makes Marcela proud.
About the Author
Brendan O’Byrne served in Battle Company with the 173rd Airborne in Afghanistan in 2007-2008. He is a two-time Outward Bound alum.