As always, on Memorial Day in Washington DC, it was hot and humid. At Arlington National Cemetery, the men and women in dress uniforms stood solemnly saluting their fallen comrades. Two young Marines opened a beer and saluted their Lieutenant’s grave while a young widow hugged the stone with her husband’s name and cried softly; mothers and fathers decorated the stones of their sons and daughters. The sound of helicopters flying low, bringing the officials for the ceremonies at the Amphitheater, caused a few to flinch and glance upwards; and the multi-gun salute marked the end of the official observances up the hill.
Today, I was there to celebrate a life. The life of a young man, who was almost the same age as my son, who was in Iraq at the same time as my son, and whose mother is a friend of mine. His smiling face looked out from the photo badges we all wore, and as his mother opened a bottle of champagne to toast him, those who knew him talked about his life. His family spoke of him with love, his fellow soldiers with respect and honor. We covered his stone with roses, tulips, a lei, peeps (because the boy just LOVED peeps) and flags.
I walked around Section 60 with an armful of roses that had been donated today. All those stones, the ones who didn’t have a mother or father there, who may not have had a spouse, or that spouse may live very far away, we made sure they weren’t alone. And I thought of the reason we observe this day – the day that had been known as Decoration Day in the Deep South. My friend and I took flowers to a few stones, and she’d say “his mom is in California” or “both his parents are gone”; the truly heartbreaking story of the young soldier killed in action, and his wife who couldn’t bear it and joined him. The little things left there, the rubber duckies, the shot glasses (full or empty), pictures of families or a newspaper clipping taped to the marker personalized many of the graves. Decoration Day 2012.
A piper played Amazing Grace and the Marine Corps hymn, the Army song and Scotland the Brave. Family groups talked, and babies toddled around the stones; amongst the tears and the hugs, their giggles reminded us that life goes on. As my friend and I walked to those markers that she knew wouldn’t be decorated today, she asked me where else I’d be today if not joining her in the heat. Being surrounded by these families, at the most honored burial ground– that’s where I wanted to be today.
There were a few dignitaries, but they weren’t the honored guests. The honored – they smiled out from pictures, on t-shirts, or poster board sized photographs, buttons and pins and death notices, stiff in their uniform picture or laughing in their high school or wedding photograph. We miss them. We love them. And no matter how many years go by, we will honor them. Not just today, but every day. As a friend told me, every day is Memorial Day in the families of those who wear a gold star, who mourn a son, daughter, husband or wife, cousin or sibling.
Today the country took a moment to honor them. What about tomorrow? Will you remember to honor them then? Or will their families be told that there just isn’t any money to help them? Will the memories of our country be as short as many of us fear?
The yellow ribbons that were tied around trees at the beginning of this last long decade have faded and fallen; the gratitude of a grateful nation is definitely strained. We in the military community will try to make sure you don’t forget them.