My family recently returned from a vacation to Washington, D.C. I have always appreciated my country but have never been a flag-waiving, chest-thumping patriot. However, this trip left me humbled and far more appreciative of what I have and where I live.
Being able to see the actual Declaration of Independence and Constitution was amazing. Touring the Capitol Building, seeing the original “Star Spangled Banner”and Ford’s Theater while visiting all of the museums was an awe-inspiring glimpse into history. However, what really got to me were all the memorials.
I am not a Veteran. Many members of my family have served in the military, but I have not. Seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the WWII Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial really pounded home how much life has been lost for this country. In particular, the Vietnam Memorial touched me.
We visited the Memorial a few days after Father’s Day. As you can see, the wall was covered in flowers and letters written to the soldiers who had fallen in the war. If you can zoom in and read some of them, do it. Some of the letters were letters written from local school children. Some were written by sons and daughters thanking their lost parents for their service. Still others were from friends who had served with the lost. It was quiet, it was somber and it was extremely touching.
In particular, the veteran in this last picture got to me. I never spoke with him and do not know what his story is. What I do know is that when he got to the end of the wall he tried to walk away three times. Three times he tried to leave, three times he stopped and turned back to stare at the wall. Was he remembering a friend? A relative? Remembering his experiences? I will never know, but I know that he was still standing like this when I left. I do not know anything about this man, but my heart breaks for him.
At dinner, my ten-year-old son asked what made the Vietnam Memorial mean more to me than the Memorials. I have family who served in Vietnam but I explained to him what made this memorial special to me was that it personalized loss. Ben was touched by the WWII Memorial and the display that shows a star for every 100 Americans lost. As can be seen in this picture, there are 4048 stars.
I explained that the number 404,800 is really too big to mean much to us, but seeing individual names on the wall makes it very real. Seeing 58,286 names listed in chronological order of their death was extremely personal. I said that it’s easy to look at the wall and think “look how few we lost early” or “look at the sharp decrease in fatalities at the end. Look there is the last man to die in that conflict,” but when you see the name, it is real. The families of those names do not care if the name is first, on the thinnest part of the wall, located in the middle of wall or is the last name because if there is a name, there is a mother who lost her child. There is a family whose heart broke as badly as the other 58,285 families regardless of position. First, middle, or last, someone important left us. The Memorial made it more than a number, or statistic, to me. My son cried as I explained that to him and I am proud of him for that.
This Fourth of July, I am finding myself thinking more of all those who have served and lost their lives for this country and it humbles me. The number of graves and memorials for “unknown soldiers” staggers me. Over half the graves in Gettysburg National Cemetery are for unknown Union soldiers! They gave the same as the soldier with the most ornate tombstone at Arlington but history can not even remember their names.
This is not an anti-war blog. Sadly, it does not matter if you believe that the seeds of war were planted when Cain killed Abel or if you think that war was born when our first monkey ancestor discovered he could get a better banana by smashing a five-knuckle-bullet into his neighbor’s face, conflict resolution by force has always been with us. I wish this was not true and dream of a world where this is not the case but that is not the world we currently live in. If you feel like you can change that, please do.
This weekend try to put aside your opinion of American wars. Try not to think about whether you think a particular war was (or is) a noble cause or powered by ulterior motives. For a weekend, put aside your politics and how you feel about military action. Try, with a grateful heart, to think about names on a wall or graves for unknown soldiers. Thank that guy wearing a “Veteran” hat regardless of how you feel about his war. If you are too cool take your hat off during the National Anthem, do it just for this weekend as a tribute to someone who forfeited his chance to be as cool as you think you are. For one weekend look at the homeless veteran and give him a hamburger without trying to decide if he is one of our “unknowns” who may have slogged through a jungle with his friends dying all around him or if he is really just a junkie looking for a hand-out. Give the man something to eat and assume you did something small for someone who did something much bigger.
Thank you to my grandfathers who fought in the Great Wars. Thank you to my uncles who served multiple tours in Vietnam. Thank you to my dad for serving. Thank you to all current and past military personnel. Thank you to their families. Thank you to some unknown, forgotten soldier who died beside a road somewhere fighting the British in our Revolution. Thank you all for doing things that exceed anything I could ever do so that I can sit behind a keyboard and bang out whatever opinion I want.
Happy Fourth of July everyone! Be safe and appreciate what we have.
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