Honoring Grief on Memorial Day: An interview with veteran and psychologist Dr. Debby Baker

Dr. Debby Baker, U.S. Air Force veteran and programs director of the Community Grief Center in Greeley, Colorado, will deliver the keynote address at Greeley’s 2023 Memorial Day Service, Monday, May 29, at Linn Grove Cemetery (1700 Cedar Avenue). The ceremony will last about an hour, starting at 9 a.m., rain or shine.

A tradition spanning over 100 years, the ceremony honors service members who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country. The staff at Linn Grove Cemetery work with various Weld County military organizations to honor veterans. Linn Grove’s Avenue of Flags is a magnificent display on Memorial Day and draws crowds from across the state. The display features prominent American flags throughout the cemetery and on more than 2,000 veteran graves.

In the video below, Dr. Baker shares a bit about her military career, how it led to her work in grief support, and why it’s so important to honor the complicated feelings that often come with Memorial Day. A complete transcript of the conversation is available below the video if you prefer to read the interview.

About the Community Grief Center

Greeley’s Community Grief Center helps people of all ages who are grieving a death find connection and healing. The center also educates the community on grief’s impact on both the individual and society. The groups are offered at no cost to those seeking support and cover topics ranging from child loss to suicide support to classes meant to help you understand grief/the grieving process.

Rachel (left, in stripes): Dr. Baker, thanks so much for joining us here today. Tell us a little bit about what led to your decision to join the service.

Dr. Debby Baker (right, in pink): It was a pragmatic decision. They opened the all-volunteer force, and the services recognized they would need women if they were going to meet their quotas, so they integrated the services—the women’s Air Force used to be separate but it was integrated—and I was offered, for my last two years of college through ROTC, a stipend that paid for my room and board back then.

I not only took it for that reason, but because you had a guaranteed job when you graduated. I graduated, got commissioned, went into the Air Force, thought I’d serve four years… and then ended up retiring after almost 28 years of service! They kept offering good jobs! My husband is also in the service and we got our commissions together and retired together, and we just kept getting great jobs. And we loved it!

Rachel: The span of your career is amazing and impressive! Was there any position or assignment that really impacted you?

Debby: I had a couple and they were all as Colonels. I loved being the J-1 in Hawaii and Pacific command. I got to travel all over that area and made some pretty impactful decisions to help military people in that job. And then in my last job as the Director of Personnel (which is like human resources) I looked after the needs of about 29,000 people, civilian and military. That was a very challenging and rewarding job!

Rachel: I can imagine, that many people trying to manage! So, I know one of the things that’s close to your heart is your current position with the Community Grief Center. Talk about how your career transitioned due to that role.

Debby: When I retired I used the GI bill, and I went back and got my doctorate in clinical psychology. You try a variety of different things while you’re learning, and I realized that I had a gift for working with grieving people. I could hold that sacred and bear that pain—because people are in great pain when they’re grieving—and then, and this is to the benefit of the Air Force, I can leave it. I don’t take it home with me.

There’s a huge need for grief services because we’re all going to grieve. It’s how well do we do it, which leads to what the quality of our life is. That led to my working with a board, and we started the Community Grief Center.

Rachel: This year you’re going to be the keynote speaker for the 2023 Memorial Day Ceremony here at Linn Grove Cemetery. Thinking about Memorial Day and the grief associated with that, what would you like community members to know about this specific day?

Debby: Memorial Day is a sacred day. It’s a sacred day to all Americans. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the cartoon of… It’s a park with people enjoying the day and having picnics, but underneath it is all of the military who have died holding up the ground. It’s the people who have gone before us and gave their all who allow us to have the freedoms that we have, and to enjoy Memorial Day.

And it is a day to be enjoyed, but it’s also a day to remember that people gave their lives. Our forefathers, our foremothers, our friends and family have died so that we enjoy the freedoms that we have today. And that’s huge!

There are a lot of countries in this world that do not have the freedoms that we enjoy in America, and we don’t want to forget that. And we don’t want to give it up.