Medals and memories

Let me tell you a bit about my some of my family members, and their medals. My grandad was in the Army. In the First World war he served in a mounted regiment as a groom. Saw service all over the place … got some medals. In between the wars he served in the middle east worked a bit with Lawrence of Arabia and got another medal. By World War two he was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Military Police … he served mostly in Aldershot, at times acting as the Kings bodyguard. Got some more medals including the MBE. When asked what he got the medals for he would say ‘For doing my job and minding my own business’. I like that. I never met my grandad. My dad, who’s now 95, joined the RN on D-day and served for a few years, including during the Aden conflict. He was entitled to a couple of medals. He never claimed those medals – never felt he wanted to. I claimed them for him a couple of years ago, he was made up. My wife’s dad served during WW2. He was German, so served in the Luftwaffe. He was captured and spent time as a Prisoner of War in Texas before settling in Wales, as his former home was in what became East Germany. His brother also served in U boats – they didn’t see each other from 1943 – 1991. They didn’t get any medals. My wife served in the RN as a nurse for 9 years. She didn’t get any medals.  I served in the RN for 28 years. I got a few medals. Now my lad is serving as well … he hasn’t got any medals. Yet.

So my family has a bit of military history and quite a few medals between us.

What is the significance of a medal? The Cambridge English dictionary gives this definition:

A small metal disc, with words or a picture on it, given as a reward for a brave action, for winning a competition, or to remember a special event.

Military Medals are given for very specific actions or campaigns. Some are given simply for turning up (I have one of those), some are given for taking part in a specific campaign (I have two of those) and others for long service to the nation (I have one of those). So when I turn out on Remembrance Day you can see that I am a ‘veteran’.  My wife stands by my side, she is also a veteran … but has no medals. Until a year ago my father would stand smartly to attention during the two minutes silence with no outward sign that he was a veteran. My father in law .. all those years of Remembrance parades in Wales, no medals yet he was a veteran who had served his country. Then there was my grandfather who had 8 medals .. quite a haul … for doing his duty and minding his own business.

Not everyone gets a medal for their sacrifice, one of the most moving parts for me of the annual Festival of Remembrance is when the war widows and families of servicemen killed in action cross the floor of the Albert Hall. Then there’s the police, fire brigade, St Johns ambulance and others .. they all ‘march’ (I use the term loosely) across. Some have medals, some don’t but all have memories. Memories of sacrifice in many different forms (we used to have a car sticker that said ‘Navy wife – hardest job in the Fleet’). We can’t judge the service of anyone simply by medals on their chest.  I now have my grandfather’s medals .. to help me remember his service and sacrifice.  But many never got any medals, but that doesn’t make the sacrifice any less valued.  We can remember by stories told and untold, of recognising sacrifice in many different ways, some rewarded by medals, but the vast majority are simply memories. What memories I wonder for those with no medals standing at a war memorial, raising a toast silently in the pub, selling poppies, wearing a poppy or visiting a cemetery. Who knows what memories each person carries on Remembrance Day? Each one equally valid, medal awarded or not.

At Remembrance we say ‘greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends’ Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice, he didn’t get a medal pinned on his chest, he got the reward of God his Father welcoming him home for a job well done .. no medal, and the indicators for his sacrifice were the nail marks in his hands and feet. He still bears those. And many of those who don’t have medals still bear the scars of their sacrifice, hidden deep within. So this year at the Remembrance service or parade maybe seek out the person standing quietly on the edge of the crowd head bowed, wearing no medals – but many memories – and say ‘thank you for your sacrifice’ because surely they will have made one.

Image copyright: Crown Copyright 2012