I used to not give Memorial Day much thought. For me it was a chance to enjoy a long weekend. I did not give much thought to what the holiday was about. I knew it was originally a day set aside to honor our fallen soldiers, and that over time the scope had broadened to include all those who had passed on. When I was much younger, I remember going with my grandmother to the cemetery to place flowers on the graves of relatives. Other than that, it was pretty much just a day off.
Life has a way of changing the way you look at things. It certainly has for me. Memorial Day has a totally different meaning for me now because of a young man named Steven McGovern. The Lord chose to bless me with two wonderful daughters, but not a son. I guess my relationship with Steven came as close to having a son as I will ever get.
Steven was the stepson of William Hawkins who came to serve as the minister at Lancaster Christian Church where I was a member. My first recollection of Steven was when he was about fourteen or so. He had the most awful looking haircut I had seen on a kid; parted in the middle, down in both eyes, longer in the front than in the back. And he was proud of it. At one time I think I remember he dyed it orange.
I’d often see Steven sneaking a smoke out behind the church building. I smoked back then myself, and occasionally he’d bum a cigarette from me. During those smoke breaks, I gradually got to know him a little better. He was a kid who did not care much for school, more interested in mastering the skateboard than in bringing his grades up. He didn’t seem like a bad kid, just not terribly motivated .
A year or so after he became our minister, Rev. Hawkins drafted my wife and me to serve as the adult leaders of the high school aged youth group at our church. That’s when I really began to get to know Steven . He had an older brother, Michael, and a younger brother, Joe. Joe was too young to be a part of our youth group for the first couple of years we led it. Michael was with us for the first two years, before he was too old to participate any longer. Steven was the only one of the McGovern boys who was in the youth group all three years we led it.
We had an active youth group. Our group seemed to always have a project going or a trip we were planning and raising money for. We met weekly and shared a lot of meaningful discussions. Kids have a lot to say if adults will just listen, patiently. Steven was not terribly outspoken, but he did put his two cents worth in now and then. I came to realize he was a much more than the slacker I had pegged him for initially. Any time we were working on a project, he was a hard worker, willing to do whatever he was asked to do.
Our group was holding a car wash one Saturday, raising money for a trip to a church camp at Myrtle Beach. I brought my wife’s car and paid the kids to wash it in preparation of putting it up for sale. Steven was old enough by then to drive, but did not have his license. Still, when he found out I had a car for sale, being a typical teenage boy, he was immediately interested. I asked how much he had to spend on a car. The answer was zip. I didn’t have a buyer and he didn’t have a dollar, so we struck a deal.
I told Steven I would sign the title over to him if he would work 200 hours for me on my farm. He talked it over with his parents and then told me it was a deal. When school was out for the summer, Steven came to work for me. Each day, his stepfather drove him out to the farm by 8a.m. Steve would work all day, doing whatever chores I could think up for him to do. I worked with him a few days, but most of the time I was away doing my real job.
It was a challenge to come up with jobs he could do. He was a city kid and knew nothing about operating a tractor or chainsaw or most other farm equipment. But he could run a riding mower and a weed eater, so I had the summer off from mowing the yard. Steven painted the plank fence around our yard and elsewhere on the farm, managing to get nearly as much paint on himself and my old farm truck as he got on the fence. He painted it all with a brush and a roller. That took a while. Still he stuck with it and never complained even when it was scorching hot and muggy.
I don’t recall every job he did for me that summer, but I do remember he was willing to tackle anything I asked him to do, and he did his best at each and every task. Rain made it impossible to work occasionally, so it took Steven about six weeks to get in his two hundred hours. Never once during that time did he ever ask for a dime, although I offered several times to pay him. He wanted it all to go toward buying that old car.
When Steven had reached his required number of hours we had a cookout for him and his parents to acknowledge his work and to ceremoniously hand over the title to him. His grin lit up the room as he became the proud owner of his first set of ”wheels”. Not only had Steven earned his car that summer, he also earned my profound respect for his work ethic and determination. Simply put, there was a lot more to this kid than I had ever given him credit for up till then.
One of the things I learned about Steven was that since he was about six years old he’d told his mom and everyone else who asked that he wanted to join the Army as soon he was old enough. He never wavered from that goal. No other career path interested him.
I took Steven on his first hunting trip. We went after squirrels in a holler I know. Steven headed into the woods donning an army surplus ghillie suit. Leave it to him to turn a squirrel hunt into a special ops mission. I laughed while he wasn’t looking. He looked like a shrub toting a shotgun.
Several months after Steve worked for me , his older brother, Michael was killed in a car accident. Steven was devastated and seemed just lost for months afterward. As Michael lay in the hospital being kept alive by machines, Steven and I went outside and sat on a bench in the middle of the night and prayed. My heart ached for Michael. It also ached for Steven. A seventeen year old just shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of grief and loss.
Several months after Michael’s death my family planned a trip to my wife’s sisters home in New Mexico. I had promised my brother in law I’d help him to build a deck while I was there. Steven was obviously having a hard time coming to grips with the loss of his brother. I asked him to consider flying to New Mexico with me and my family. I told him I needed his help working on the deck. What I didn’t tell him was I hoped the trip would help, if only briefly, with his grief. He got permission from his family and I bought him a ticket. He had never been on a plane.
We built the deck in three days. Not bad for amateurs. We spent the rest of our week in the desert sight seeing. One stop we made was the huge flea market in Albuquerque. He bought his mom a pair of earrings and himself a big bayonet type knife, still dreaming of being a soldier. Steven returned to school for his final year shortly after we returned home .
During his last year of school, Steven signed up for the National Guard in a delayed entry program. He was on cloud nine. His dream was finally about to become reality. As soon as he was done with school, he was off to become the soldier he had always dreamed of being. I didn’t see a lot of Steven from that point on. Occasionally he’d drop by to visit. He had grown up to become a fine young man. By then his family had moved on to another church and his local ties were largely severed. He told me a little about his military duties, but a lot of it he kept to himself.
At some point, Steven transferred from the Guard to the Army. He pulled a tour in Afghanistan in an Army intelligence unit. He never told me a thing about what he did there. All I ever knew was he had a full beard while on active duty. Go figure. Eventually, his hitch with Uncle Sam ended. He then signed up with Blackwater , a military contractor, and headed to Iraq.
On April 21, 2005, Steven was aboard a helicopter that was shot down by an insurgent group. He was twenty four years old. The men who killed him filmed the helicopter as they shot it down with a rocket propelled grenade then handed the tape over to CNN.
For the next two days the television broadcasted that scene over and over again. There are no words to convey the horror and grief I experienced watching Steven being killed on TV. It was surreal. How could it be? This kid who had painted my fence, mowed my yard and become my friend was killed in a war on the other side of the planet and I sat and watched it in my living room. Suddenly that far away war was far too real and far too close to my home and my heart.
I attended Steven’s funeral. He was laid to rest at Camp Nelson National Cemetery with full military honors. I have visited his grave a couple of times since. It’s not easy for me to do. Each time I drive past I look up to where he is buried. I know the exact spot.
It was there at the cemetery that my perception of Memorial Day was forever changed. There I realized thousands of young men and women just like Steven have given their all for the sake of this country. The white headstones laid out so neatly in perfect alignment are to me a symbol now of all those who have served to keep us free.
Steven had a special place in my heart and always will, yet he was but one of countless thousands who have put themselves in harm’s way in order to preserve our nation. Each and every one of those who died left behind people who loved them and grieved their deaths. Each one of them died far too soon, far too young and left a hole in the hearts of those they left behind. Standing there amid all those white grave markers I began to more fully comprehend the true cost of freedom. I have a new reverence and respect for the holiday and all it has come to represent. I remember Steven. I salute them all.