The Unknown Soldiers: The real meaning of Memorial Day

May 3, 2014 

On May 27, 2010, then-U.S. Army Maj. Jaimie Leonard wrote a stirring piece about the meaning of Memorial Day for her hometown newspaper.

"It was not until I actually went to war in Iraq and when fellow soldiers in my unit failed to make it back from patrol did I truly internalize the distinction," the soldier wrote in The Warwick Advertiser. "It wasn't until then that I truly valued how these brave men and women who died serving our country deserved their own day memorializing their sacrifice."

Long before she became an Army officer, Jaimie, who grew up in southeastern New York state, was carrying herself like a future leader.

"Jaimie was always determined and always wanted to do well in everything she did," her oldest of four sisters, Liz Harman, told me.

When Jaimie's dreams of attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were initially dashed, she dedicated every subsequent day to proving she belonged.

"She had that drive and determination to never, ever quit," Liz said. "She got into West Point that second year."

After being commissioned as an intelligence officer in 1997, Jaimie deployed to Bosnia in 1999, along with a subsequent stint in Korea and two in Germany. She served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and then in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.

"When she was deployed, we would send her food, but it turns out she'd work through all the meal times," Jaimie's oldest sister said. "She wanted to make sure she had everything together to support those around her."

Jaimie was a smart, hard-nosed soldier, but as soon as she came home from work, it was time to relax.

"She was either in a military uniform or a dress," Liz said with a chuckle. "There was no in between for her."

Time after time, Jaimie received high praise for her relentless efforts around the globe. The humble soldier, however, would never trumpet her accomplishments.

"It wasn't about the medals," Liz said. "She was proud of them, but they didn't define her."

Liz became understandably emotional when our discussion turned to Jaimie's 2013 deployment to Afghanistan, which started with a family tragedy. The day after Jaimie arrived on base, her and Liz's father died.

"She wanted to come home," Liz, 39, said. "But she wanted to get her troops together … she felt like she had a responsibility."

For the next five months, Jaimie would email Liz to share her favorite memories of their dad. The sisters communicated more than during previous deployments, including an exchange about a care package Liz was preparing for Jaimie in early June.

"It was not only things for herself, but for the people around her," Liz said.

Then, on June 8, Liz, who was traveling with her husband and children, received a shocking phone call from one of her sisters. Jaimie, she learned, had been killed in Afghanistan.

"I didn't believe it," Liz said. "I was just screaming …"

Liz said that Jaimie, 39, was shot and killed by a disgruntled Afghan National Army soldier. According to the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Todd Clark, 40, was also killed in the tragic incident.

Liz is not bitter toward the Afghan people for the apparent "insider" attack.

"They said at the service in Afghanistan at the (Forward Operating Base) for them, Afghan generals were crying," she said.

There have been plenty of tears shed by Liz and her four siblings, and many well-deserved honors for Jaimie, who was posthumously promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

"Everybody came together," Liz Harman said.

While closing her unforgettable Memorial Day 2010 column in The Warwick Advertiser, future Lt. Col. Jaimie Leonard called upon Americans to "consider your duties as citizens."

"Remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country in war, but also honor those others who sacrifice in other ways to make this country great -- law enforcement, firefighters, teachers, volunteers, etc.," she wrote. "Please honor them in deed and not just giving thanks, parades, or planting flowers or flags on graves.

"Take measure of what have you done for your country and ask yourself if you could do more."

Tom Sileo, Creators Syndicate, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA, 90045.

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