For someone who has served in the military, there are two Memorial Days – before military and after military. The before military Memorial Days are spent like most Americans; barbeques and beach parties, maybe seeing a parade or visiting a national cemetery. The after military Memorial Days are something different, especially for combat Veterans who know and served with those who sacrificed their lives alongside their comrades in arms.
"There is nothing wrong with going to the beach or having fun, but remember why this is a holiday and why these people died," said Christopher Alban, a wounded Marine Corps Veteran and South Florida native. "It's different now that I know people who have fallen, or are still fighting for their lives in Afghanistan."
Memorial Day traces its roots to the American Civil War, remembering those who fought for both the Union and Confederacy and the terrible costs of that war. Following the Civil War, most American battles and wars affected most of the population. However, in the most recent conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a smaller percentage of Americans are bearing more of the weight of combat. Indeed, public opinion polls seem show that more and more Americans view Memorial Day not as a day of remembrance for those who served, but as a day to mark the beginning of summer.
Alban, like thousands of young men and women, always knew he was going to serve in the military. A month after graduating high school, he found himself on the famous yellow footprints at Parris Island, S.C., taking the first step on a journey that would ultimately lead to a gruesome leg injury and new appreciation for life.
Following his training in North Carolina, he soon found himself in Afghanistan support combat operations in Helmand Province as a motor transportation specialist. With the rest of his unit, they transported the three beans of combat – beans, bullets and bandages – to Marines and NATO forces readying to push into more remote areas of the country.
"When I heard we were going, I was pumped up, I wanted to go," he said. "It hit me on my first convoy that I was really in Afghanistan. My heart was beating and all I could think was that I was really here."
It wasn't until later when he experienced the blast of his first IED that the 22 year old realized, "they are really trying to kill us."
During his time in country, he took part in nearly 100 convoys supporting both Marines and Georgian fighters who were supporting the mission. Convoys such as the ones Alban took part in were often targeted by insurgent forces as easy targets because of the ease of making and deploying IEDs. Alban said his trucks were hit with three IEDs while he was there, but two of them did nothing but damage the truck.
"I remember July 4, looking up at the sky and thinking about what people were doing back home while I was sitting here," he said. "It was very surreal, but I was proud to be doing my part."
A few weeks later, on his last scheduled convoy before returning to the United States, third IED blast would flip his vehicle and break most of the bones in his left leg.
"I'm driving the truck talking with my assistant driver and the next thing I know, a huge explosion flips the 7-ton refueling truck," he said. "What's weird is that there was a strange silence right before the explosion, like I knew something was about to happen. I knew something was wrong, and BOOM, the explosion hit."
Now, nearly two years after his injury, he walks only with a slight limp – from the metal rods inserted into his lower leg and heel. But more than the injury, he said, what really changed after the explosion was his view on life and what is really important.
"In the hospital I was really down, having some bad thoughts," he said. "But then I started to realize what is really important. The Marine Corps gave me discipline, but this event gave me perspective. In a strange way, it was a blessing in disguise."
Later though, when his unit had returned to Afghanistan and two of his friends died in combat, he started to realize what it meant to be a Veteran and how the bonds of service never really go away.
"You have friends, you have family, but then you have Marines," he said. There is really something different and special about being a Marine. When I was hurt, I saw the real Marine Corps; how they take care of their own, how they care for each other."
Now out of the Marine Corps and living in Tamarac, Fl., Alban is about to enroll in school and study engineering. He has a girlfriend that he met while he was recovering in a Virginia hospital and a new outlook on what Memorial Day means.
"For me, you always hear about Marines being killed, but it's different when it's someone you know. It makes me think that this person will never be here again," he said. "My friends died and they’ll never get to do so many things. Just remember that these people served to protect us."