For being so ignorant of its meaning for so long, I feel a twinge of guilt every Memorial Day weekend.
It's well-deserved penance for years of failing to appreciate how lucky I was that I never had to go to war.
When I turned 18 in November 1980, the Iran hostage crisis was mere weeks from ending instead of escalating into military conflict. Vietnam was thankfully in the rearview mirror, and a time of relative peace lay ahead.
I was almost 30 when the first deployments of Operation Desert Storm came about in 1991, a frightening time to be sure but not frightening enough to require the services of an out-of-shape 28-year-old newspaper reporter. By 9/11, I was nearly 40.
What a stroke of dumb luck it was for me and my generation to have dodged going to war. My late father's plan to spirit me to Mexico when the first draft notice dropped in our mailbox was never necessary because it never came. I told him I wouldn't run if it did, but it was a hollow declaration when no war was imminent.
My only brush with the emotional upheaval of war is sadly pathetic.
President Jimmy Carter had pushed mandatory registration for the military draft through Congress in the summer of 1980, just weeks after I had graduated from high school.
Carter wanted to show American resolve before the Soviet Union, so 18-year-old males had to register for the draft thanks to Proclamation 4771 of the Military Selective Service Act.
Failure to do so was a felony and could bring a prison term and $250,000 fine.
There were actually a few protesters on hand the day I went to my post office to fill out the draft registration form. One young man asked if I would consider listening to his reasons why I shouldn't register.
Like the unformed slab of clay I was at that age, I lied and said I was there to pick up a package for my mother a memory that makes me wince today.
I had felt compelled to follow the wishes of my president for reasons I didn't question. But at that age, I didn't have the courage of my convictions.
I snuck in and out of the post office like some low-level criminal, fearful of making eye contact with anyone.
Given my youthful ignorance and upbringing, do you know what I would have been had I come of age in wartime?
I would have been one of those kids from working- class neighborhoods kids whose families struggle to make ends meet who would have gone off to war with little understanding of why or what it meant.
Since 2003, perpetual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed more than 6,000 American casualties. More than 700 of them were from California, the most of any state. More than 58,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War with more than 5,000 hailing from California, again the most of any state.
Why was my generation so lucky?
If I had been born 10 years earlier or 20 years later, I easily could have been one of those killed in war. The memory of me might have been distilled to a smiling portrait frozen in time and viewed by my family with increasing sadness as the years rolled on.
A future relative might have looked upon my distant image and asked: "Who was that?"
Beyond patriotic hyperbole and war hype, private moments like those are the truest measures of devotion for military families.
The rest of us get to go on with our lives; they don't. The rest of us view this weekend as a mindless respite. They view it as a mournful reminder.
In the last decade of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, my life has gotten only better and more prosperous as military planes continually returned home with flag-draped coffins.
I've had the time and luxury to slowly develop the courage of convictions that I once lacked, to become a husband, a father and a journalist. That unformed slab of clay was unbelievably blessed to never come within 10,000 miles of a military convoy intersecting with suicide bombers.
As the gifts of life came my way, the echo of Vietnam a frightening specter of my childhood dulled to a whisper and slowly faded from the center of our popular culture.
The last three U.S. presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama evaded warfare through influential connections or fortunate birthdays like me. For more than a decade, the leaders of our nation have sent men and women into a danger they never had to face themselves.
The burdens and sacrifices of Memorial Day are acutely felt by so few.
This weekend, my American flag is flying in front of my home, but that's not enough. We'll fill Facebook and Twitter with easy platitudes aimed at our war dead and their families, but it's not enough.
Many of us are free and happy because someone else put defending our nation's interests over everything else. How to repay that debt?
Whenever I see someone in uniform now I always make a point to say thank you. But as I turn and walk away, I always hear the same words in my head: It's not enough.