For Alaska’s Army commander, Memorial Day is about more than platitudes

Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak talked about his own difficult experiences at Anchorage’s downtown ceremony.

Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak said Monday that the phrase “never forget” has lost some of its meaning. Often, it’s a “trite statement of convenience” for people who are otherwise unsure of what to say in the presence of a veteran or a Gold Star family member, he said.

Andrysiak, commanding general of the U.S. Army Alaska, looked inward to explain Memorial Day’s deeper significance in his keynote speech for Memorial Day ceremony at the Anchorage Veterans’ Memorial on the Delaney Park Strip.

His voice sometimes cracking with emotion, he recalled witnessing grief ripple through soldiers, even as they prepared to go back out on patrol after the loss of a fellow soldier. He described meeting bereaved family members and feeling helpless, having words that could ease their pain.

“We also feel the failure of not being able to bring them all home. I’ve presented the flag at a funeral to parents, who as I knelt to present them the flag, grabbed me, wrapped their arms around me, because they knew how hard it was for me,” he said.

“And so for myself, my family and other veterans, this weekend brings a great deal of reflection and mourning. It opens old wounds that we’d thought we’d beat, and brings with it a wave of guilt for making it home alive.”

Andrysiak said the significance of the holiday is much different for Gold Star families, each of whom had to “figure out how to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives.”

“Many will remember that moment when time stood still as they opened the door to a chaplain and casualty notification officer telling them their loved one had died... They’ll recount how many hopes and dreams were shattered, and the countless hours, searching for answers of ‘Why me? Why us?” They’ll tell you the delicate detail of everything they were doing up to and including the moment they were notified. What they were eating, what the plans were for the day, what they were wearing,” he said.

[JBER paratroopers hike Gold Star Peak to honor and remember their 77 fallen brothers and sisters in arms]

Andrysiak, speaking on a sunny morning before a crowd of several hundred, said his intention wasn’t to dampen the occasion, but to amplify its reason.

“Our service members are not made of threadbare cliches,” he told the audience.

The commander left the crowd with advice for speaking with veterans. He suggested it’s often better to listen instead.

“Don’t worry about finding the right words. Just take the time to get to know them. Listen to their story, and just say thanks,” Andrysiak said. “Investing the time to listen matters more than any platitudes.”

Marc Lester

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.