I suppose some might consider it obligatory for any blog involving the military to discuss Memorial Day and I will be no exception to a good rule. Setting aside the usual diatribe on miles and points, I would like to take a moment to put down my thoughts on an important holiday that most Americans do not reflect on nearly enough.
Yesterday was a picture perfect day with blue skies and a slight breeze bringing a rare 72 degree day prior to the East Coast’s annual plunge into months of heat and humidity for the summer. The vast majority of Americans spent thisweekend and its great weather as family time at a relative’s house, the beach or some other place to gather and enjoy that precious extra day off from the druggery of work. For my family and I, we spent our time at Arlington National Cemetary. Purposefully avoiding the thousands who would show their respects on Memorial Day itself, including certainly the President, we chose to go the day before on Sunday.
I should mention that I now live within walking distance of Arlington Cemetary, although my wife would beg to differ on the definition of “walking distance”, so we drove. My daughter was down from Baltimore for the weekend, thus making it a family affair. We had all visited Arlington Cemetary separately, but not as a family and I thought that would be a pleasant experience. After all, I expect to be buried there at some time in the far future when things will be simpler and we will look back on now as the “good old days”.
We went through the Visitor’s Center and must see sites of the Kennedy graves and the Lee House before venturing in the direction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The beautiful day created a spectacular sight from the hilltop on the trees and monumental buildings of our Capitol. I marveled at the wide variety of ornate headstones and edifaces to mark Soldiers who would never appear in any history book. Likely placed there by a wealthy family rather than as a monument to some battlefield greatness. The impressive ones were those markers who noted that they were donated by the “Commonwealth” or “State of” as that signaled to me a man who’s accomplishments were recognized as important even if not won on a battlefield. They depicted an honor which I nor the vast majority of veterans will never achieve. Yet side by side with these ornate testaments to a life well lived were those of the simple headstone which all veterans’ cemetaries are famous for. Rank did not seem to matter as the First Lieutenant Hopkins monument dwarfed the surrounding simple markers of ranking officers.
We arrived late at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and missed the changing of the guard, but fortune shined on us as a wreath laying ceremony was just beginning. The crowd of a couple hundred watched respectfully as the Sergeant of the Guard and bugler brought down a wreath to be laid at the tomb. After many precise movements capped by a crisp salute, the dignitaries of some unnamed country came down to render honors. Well deserved honors likely from a nation that is free today only due to the sacrifices made by so many Americans, both Soldiers and those who supported them. While we take this day to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, we should also reflect on all who supportted our nation, from the farmers raising the crops, to the builders of the engines of war, to the Soldier’s family who wrote the letters and sent the care packages who sustained him or her in the field through many long months.
The ceremony was followed by another from schoolchildren. I thoguht this especially nice and only imagined that this wreathlaying ceremony was the culmination of a semester of study on our nation’s war and why we have fought them. I could only hope that they passed along to these children the meaning of sacrifice in an age where everyone seems to be all about themselves. The ceremony ended. we wandered to other significant monuments, both the Space Shuttle disasters, the marker for those who died in the Iranian desert at Desert One, the mast from the U.S.S. Maine, and paid silent tribute mixed with a history lesson at each one.
We trapsed down the shady paths and recognized each headstone. Most with their faith at the top followed by rank, name, date of birth and death along with the significant medals awarded for their achievements. Although I did not see the very famous ones, such as Audie Murphy, there was one which really caught my eye. It is shown below and, for those who need help deciphering it, indicates that this Soldier received the Silver Star twice, the Bronze Star once, and the Purple Heart eight times. Eight times wounded in battle and yet this man returned from each one to continue the fight for his country. I have to imagine that he volunteered to return. To return to his buddies, to see them through the next battle, to see that they returned from the war just as he wanted to return – after the job was done.
Do not give up your celebrations and tiem with your families this weekend, those are important too. But take a few moments to think about what the veterans of our nation gave and pass those down to the next generation. We now fill Arlington with dead from our past and our present. Let’s not forget their sacrifice. As a nation, less than 1% of our populace now serves in uniform and only a few percent could even pass the rigorous physical and mental requirements to do so. This is the true 1%. To leave you with a quote from “The Bridge over Toko-Ri” where men fly off to rescue others even though they knew thie own chances of survival were low “where do we find men such as these”?