Honoring the fallen and their families | VailDaily.com

Honoring the fallen and their families

CVR/NWS Herb Rubinstein KA 5-25-12

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – All of our three-day weekends were created with a higher purpose in mind than just barbecues and quick road trips. Memorial Day may have the loftiest goal – honoring those who died in the military service of their country.

Herb Rubinstein, of Edwards, is a World War II veteran. He’ll be 91 June 14 – Flag Day – and enlisted in the military soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941. He saw combat in Europe and was part of the army’s 89th Division, a unit that liberated a Nazi concentration camp.

Rubinstein every year goes out to local schools with other veterans to talk about his experiences and why Memorial Day is important.

“The reason I speak to the kids is they don’t have the background or understand the importance of that war. … They don’t understand the importance of that victory,” Rubinstein said.

Tom Steinberg, of Vail, is another World War II veteran but keeps his experiences more to himself.

Steinberg said we should remember the sacrifices made by military people but understands why those who haven’t been affected by those losses might not understand Memorial Day’s significance.

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“We’re honoring the people who didn’t come back,” he said. “Those of us who came back were lucky.”

For Steinberg, who was also part of a unit that liberated a concentration camp, May 8, the date World War II ended in Europe, is more meaningful personally.

While World War II veterans were honored as returning heroes, those who served during the Vietnam war in the 1960s and ’70s didn’t receive much respect for coming home from a war that became more unpopular the longer it lasted.

Lew MesKimen is an early Vietnam-era veteran, drafted into the Army in 1964. In his mind, it’s important to remember the sacrifices made by those who died, even in unpopular wars.

And, he said, America can do better at remembering those people.

“We may be one of the most apathetic countries” when it comes to honoring its military dead, MesKimen said.

That includes a lot of people who served.

“We had to have a bit of time to heal ourselves before we could participate (in Memorial Day events),” he said.

But over the decades – “Vietnam vets are senior citizens now,” he said – MesKimen has seen more, if belated, respect given to those veterans.

For Bern Krueger, Memorial Day is something he said he needs to make a little more room for in his own mind.

Krueger, 49, spent much of a 22-year career flying helicopters in the U.S. Marine Corps. He retired in 2006, with multiple deployments to Iraq under his belt. He acknowledged Marines on the ground experienced the Iraq war differently than he did. But having spent so much time on the job, Krueger said Memorial Day should commemorate more than just those killed during wartime.

Flying airplanes and helicopters at sea is hazardous work for just about everyone involved, and that work takes a toll.

“Those who die in peacetime are no less important than those who die in combat,” Krueger said.

But as much as Memorial Day commemorates those who have died in uniform, Krueger believes it should be a day to honor the families of the fallen, too.

It wasn’t until he retired that Krueger’s wife, Terri, told him how much stress she felt every time he deployed somewhere else.

“I’m deployed, I’m flying, doing what I love, and she’s at home,” he said. “It was very stressful for her.”

That’s true in many military families.

“What the spouse doesn’t want to do is be a burden to the one who’s deployed,” Krueger said. “That’s hard.”

The hardest thing, though, is when a spouse becomes a widow.

The day the second Iraq war started in 2003, Krueger was on “casualty notification” detail and had to tell the wife and children of a friend that their father had died. The memory still shakes him.

“That was the hardest thing I did in the service,” Krueger said. “My wife lived in fear of that same knock at the door.”

But Krueger also saw the payoff from that sacrifice. While flying around Iraq, Krueger flew many times over some of that country’s large reservoirs, which were always virtually devoid of people.

Krueger can’t help but contrast that scene with what he saw the day he came home from his last deployment.

It was Memorial Day of 2006, and Krueger was flying home from his last deployment to Iraq. As his plane circled in for a landing, he caught a good view of the ocean around Long Island, N.Y. As you’d expect, the water was alive with people enjoying themselves and their freedom.

“We’re all doing that because people have given their lives to let us,” he said.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.