Some Thoughts On Memorial Day

Arlington National Cemetery--DOD/R.D. Ward

Arlington National Cemetery–DOD/R.D. Ward

     The weather here is beautiful and I’m gearing up the family for a weekend of barbecuing, the Indy 500, outdoor fun, and perhaps a movie or two.  However, in the midst of all the fun, I thought I’d take a few minutes to remember the men and women who’ve given their lives in our country’s service and tell ya’ll a short story.

     As a veteran,  Memorial Day is a particularly important day for me.  My time in the Army was spent assigned to the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) in Washington D.C. During my time there, I participated in hundreds of full honor military funerals.  20+ years later, I still feel highly honored and extremely proud to have done that job.

     As a member of The Old Guard, one of our yearly duties was something called “Flags In/Flags Out.”  It was a detail that entailed getting up at 3AM on the Friday before Memorial Day, and placing a small American Flag in front of each and every headstone in Arlington National Cemetery (ANC).   Hundreds of soldiers would fan out into the cemetery with rucksacks brimming with flags.  When the sun rose, it did so upon fields of green peppered with red, white, and blue as far as the eye could see.  In person, it is quite a sight.

     My first year in the unit, 1988, I got in trouble for leaving my wall locker unlocked during P.T. (“physical training”), the week before Memorial Day.   My punishment was to be detailed with a couple other minor offenders, to roam Arlington National Cemetery in a staff car, straightening crooked flags, and replacing any missing or damaged ones with new flags.

     I remember it was an absolutely beautiful day in Washington D.C. that holiday.  And honestly, I was pretty ticked at having to work instead of getting to hang out on the Mall with my buddies noshing hot dogs from the ubiquitous street vendors.  Then something really special happened to me.

     Sweating in my Class A uniform and probably muttering complaints to myself, I was crossing a section of ANC on my flag patrol. From behind me, I heard a soft voice calling, “Sir? Excuse me…SIR!”  I turned around to find what I can best describe as, “a little old lady,” making a beeline for me.  She was easily in her late 80’s, but pretty spry for her age.

     I walked towards her and said, “Yes Ma’am?  Can I help you?”  She said she needed a favor and asked me to follow her.    I walked with her towards the edge of the section.   She stopped in front of one of the well-known marble headstones that mark the majority of the final resting places in the cemetery.  I noted that the stone marked the grave of a soldier who had died in late December of 1944.  As a history buff, I immediately wondered if he had been killed during the Battle of the Bulge.

     Before I had time to contemplate that further, she informed me that this was her only son.  She asked me if it would be OK for her to take the flag that had been planted on his grave, but she quickly added that she didn’t want him to be left without one.  I didn’t hesitate to tell her yes and picked a new pristine flag from my ruck to replace the original, planting it firmly in the ground and making sure it was perfectly straight.

     She explained to me that while she had visited her son many times over the decades, this was the first time she’d been able to come on Memorial Day in many years.  She just wanted something connected to her son who’d been killed so long ago. She cried as she talked about him and I really struggled to hold back the tears myself. When we were done talking, I wished her well and she gave me a hug.  I went on my way as she continued to thank me profusely.  You would have thought that I’d performed some great deed when it was in fact she who had paid such a terrible price for that little wooden stick and small piece of cloth.

     Whenever I hear of another soldier, sailor, marine or airman killed in service to our country, I think back to that day in 1988. As a parent, I don’t even want to contemplate what losing a child would be like. And I’ve seen the scars from another side as well.

      My late father-in-law was 2 years old when his dad was killed by a Japanese mortar shell on Okinawa in 1945. All Jim had to remember his dad by were a few yellowed photographs of his father holding him as a baby, a Purple Heart, and a telegram to his mother from the War Department. From the time I met him until his death a few years ago, the subject of his dad would come up every time we’d visit.  And his eyes would often tear up.  I think his dad was never far from his thoughts, even as a man in his sixties.

     So, my point is this…When you hear the national anthem this weekend, and see the flags and the airplane fly-bys, please take a moment to remember the fallen and the multitudes of friends and families left  behind who still miss them and suffer–even 60+ years later.

     For me, it took a sweet little lady to snap me out of my 18 year-old’s world of girls, cars, and partying, and  remind me of the price that’s been paid (and is still being paid) for our freedom. So, thank-you, for what it’s worth, to all those Americans (and our allies over the years) who have given their lives in the cause of freedom.  For you, my readers, take care and have a safe holiday.

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