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A brother remembers: On Memorial Day, nothing is ever laid to rest

Tom Sprague, 2008 N.Y. Times photo

The following entry -- about my brother, Col. Tom Sprague, MD, U.S. Army retired -- was first published in 2010 and published every year since to highlight military service on Memorial Day: 

"JPAC team on mission to recover remains of U.S. service members missing from WWII" (Stars & Stripes, August 2009) and "Teams Seeking Remains Dig Back to World War II" (New York Times, September 2009)

In the latter link, click on the slide show link to see Tom's team at work.

This is meaningful work. Its result bring home long-undisclosed truths to families who have moved from the shock that a loved one is missing to long years of numb unknowing. It is also work that raises questions about the value of persistent memory.

*   *   *

Tom and I have not always gotten along. Born 16 months apart, we suffered through young years as "twins" (we have looked nothing alike since we were teens, and our towheads matched better in preschool years). We roomed together in college, in the '60s, but already differences in attitudes made us steer clear of one another.

After Tom went into the Army, which later sent him to medical school, and I protested the Vietnam War, our diverging paths were set for years.

For me, long hair, folk music and journalism. For Tom, a career as an Army doctor, rising to colonel and the head of pathology at Walter Reed. After that, he got another degree, this one in forensic anthropology, and put his service to our nation by uncovering bones in Southeast Asia, Korea, Germany and Iraq, later identifying them in Hawaii.

As the years passed, I felt our differences ease. I began to see beyond the uniform to the humanity within.

A couple of years ago, we attended a joint reunion of our high school classes (1961-62) in Pennsylvania. We took a side trip into the rolling hills of Upper Bucks County to a cemetery where Tom's son had lain since he died of cancer, nearing age 10, in 1978. Side by side, we stood over the stone of little Tommy, quiet in the September afternoon. We didn't say much, but I felt that, for a moment, we had put the old animosities aside and that we were the brothers we had long avoided.

This memory takes me back to 1970, my first Memorial Day as a young reporter, feeling fresh the scar of Kent State, my antiwar fervor unhidden in the words I wrote then for a local daily newspaper.

The horror of war seemed so senseless then, and I targeted the military as complicit instruments in that horror. Overall, I still feel this way today, though I do see a need for national defense -- and define that need beyond guns.

Yet, as we remember our veterans this Memorial Day, 40 years later, I feel a deeper compassion for those who have embraced the military.

Thank you, brother, for your service.

This viewpoint was published May 24, 2010, and updated in 2024. All Sprague siblings met May 4, 2024, in Washington, Pa., to commemorate the live of their mother, Elizabeth Marie (Lewis) Sprague (1920-2020), who died during the pandemic, and there was no funeral at the time. 

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