Memorial Day — the beginning of summer, campouts, barbeques and lazy days at the lake. That is what Memorial Day used to mean to me. On March 31, 2004, the day took on a completely different meaning, and now it and the days surrounding it are spent reflecting on the lives of those who died in the service of their country. My husband, 1st Lt. Doyle M. Hufstedler, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. He was 25. Four others died with him.
Nearly every Memorial Day, our daughter, Grace, and I visit Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where we picnic at the mass grave where the remains of my husband Doyle and the four soldiers he perished with are laid to rest.
We make sure we bring all of Doyle’s favorites — Double Stuffed Oreos, Dr. Pepper, and an ice-cold Lone Star Beer (or two), of course. Doyle loved all things Texas. While we reminisce, we’re serenaded by the voices of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings from one of our iPhones. Classic country and western tunes were the sounds that flooded the airwaves of Doyle’s green, 1993 Chevy Silverado pickup, which our daughter now proudly drives.
We met our senior year of college. He proposed to me in the end zone during halftime at a football game.
Despite his favorite snacks, he was in tip-top shape, had a high-wattage smile, was respected by those who served with him, and he was the hardest working man I’ve ever known. Diagnosed with severe dyslexia in elementary school, he worked extraordinarily hard to earn his degree from Texas A&M University’s College of Engineering. After he earned his commission as a second lieutenant, he had to work twice as hard as anyone else just to keep up, but work he did — and then some, all while sporting that smile of his.
Grace never got to be the catalyst that triggered Doyle’s winning smile in person; I was eight months pregnant when he was killed. While she may never have met him, she knows him through our shared memories, his pictures and the letters he wrote.
She knows his voice from the books he read to her and recorded on a hand-held tape player in his bunk. In the background, you can hear gravel crunching beneath the tracks of armored personnel carriers rolling past. She has learned the story of his life from his family and friends: the purest gift anyone can really give is a snapshot of their memories.
Memorial Day probably draws the most people to Arlington. Many families do as we do, plunking down blankets and bags near the headstones of their fallen loved ones, lovingly cleaning their memorial plaques, poring over mementos left behind. It’s a solemn occasion, of course, but there’s also plenty of joy and laughter. It’s like a big family reunion. You bump into people you see once a year and are happy to hug them and catch up.
Children run around blowing bubbles, placing flowers at the graves of strangers and loved ones alike. They run and laugh and play, and oftentimes newcomers to Arlington scold them but the more seasoned visitors like us share our Oreos and bubbles and stories and encourage them to keep playing.
This year we are staying home in Texas. I’m going to miss it, and I’ll be sure to be back next year, but we have a reason. I just returned from a trip to Paris where I learned firsthand that grief is not a national trait, and the struggles of women who lost their husbands in service to their nations are universal. I’ll still be processing the trip at home while the other families gather in Arlington.
The event I attended was called The Woman’s World Peace Symposium, sponsored by the nonprofit organization Tuesday’s Children, which helps provide healing for families of fallen soldiers and others whose lives have been forever changed by terrorism, military conflict or mass violence. The symposium was a gathering of American widows like me, but also widows from France and Lebanon. My husband died in Iraq. The husbands of at least a few of the French women died on soil that was foreign to them. The Lebanese friends I made lost the loves of their lives in their homeland, in their own towns. To me, Doyle’s death, as excruciatingly painful as it was and is, occurred in a foreign land on a road I’ll never see, a landmark I will never have to drive past; for these women their trauma took place nearby.
Forgetting, I discovered, was a fear many of us shared. At one point a new Lebanese friend asked me, “Why do you cry after all these years?”
I was taken aback, even momentarily embarrassed — 19 years have passed, shouldn’t I be able to contain my tears? Shouldn’t I be “over it?”
I did my best to answer. I told her I cry because I grieve all the things Doyle has missed and will miss — watching our daughter grow up, attending her college graduation and even getting to know her children and being a grandfather. His death wasn’t a solitary event. It happens again and again with every moment he can’t share with us.
My Lebanese friend paused reflectively. I braced for her response. And then she said, “Ok, I just wondered. Because these are the things that I cry for, too.”
Leslie Hufstedler Alvarez, of Harker Heights, Texas, is pursuing her masters degree in family and community services and volunteers with Tuesday’s Children, EIN # 52-2347446, a national nonprofit that has provided long-term healing and resilience-building support to over 45,000 impacted by terrorism, military conflict, and mass violence for over 20 years. Tuesday’s Children sponsored the Woman’s World Peace Symposium in Washington, D.C. in 2022.
Have an opinion?
This article is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please email us. Want more perspectives like this sent straight to you? Subscribe to get our Commentary & Opinion newsletter once a week.