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Memorial Day 2002 - new meaning to a familiar day
2002? But it's 2017 . . .
Yes, it is 2017. So what's this about Memorial Day 2002?
The events of September 11, 2001 set so many events in motion for America, for her families, for the world. Born out of disbelief, fear and apprehension came strength and solidarity, pride, commitment, sacrifice of life, limb and family . . . so many things. I know you have your own story to tell.
This year, we will mark 16 years of war as a nation in response to those events - of American sons and daughters being sent into armed conflict, some to never return, others to return to lives forever changed. Tensions around the world and at home cause us to fear the next attack or call to arms. In this reflection I remember not so much the events of that year following 9/11, but that moment in time on Memorial Day in 2002 when I paused to ponder them.
Since writing this reflection in 2002, our children have grown, become independent, tackled life's challenges, overcome disappointments, enjoyed many triumphs and the love of family. I no longer live near Mount Pleasant Cemetery, having traded the lush greenery of Ohio for the desert grandeur of New Mexico - making my Memorial Day pilgrimage to Veterans Memorial Park in Las Cruces instead. That son who enlisted after 9/11 still serves, having served a tour in Iraq in 2007. Two of his younger brothers also answered the call, one to a stint in the Army Reserves, the other completing an enlistment in the Air National Guard, having deployed to the Middle East as well. I myself served two stateside active duty tours in support of the war and homeland defense missions and have since retired from 39 years of active and reserve military service. One of those sons is now also a veteran of a vicious battle with cancer. Thankfully, we have not known the tragedy of loss of life or limb due to these conflicts that so many families have suffered.
But most importantly, this day brings with it a surge in my soul and a lump in my throat, a groaning desire that these events, these changes in the fabric of American life and family, these moments in time that have defined us, will not be forgotten. There are new days ahead and new conflicts to face. I pray that we all will pause - reflect - release - and resolve - to keep these memories alive. To keep our American brand of liberty and freedom alive to the next generation - and the next - demands no less.
Memorial Day 2002
Every Memorial Day morning finds me at Mount Pleasant cemetery. You might think from the name that the cemetery commands some hilltop or mountain perch. But the only mount you’ll find there in the flat farmlands of northwest Ohio is a slightly inclined driveway leading into the rows of stone markers.
“Memorial Day” - the name itself calls for remembering. I don’t remember the first time my father took me to Mount Pleasant cemetery, because I don’t remember a year that we didn’t go. The freshly planted fields stopped at the edges of the unfenced cemetery as though the fields themselves respected the boundaries of the hallowed ground. Standing in the cold dampness of the dew, we would wait with anywhere from twenty to fifty friends and neighbors gathered for the sole purpose of remembering. While we waited, my mother inspected with approval the flowers she had placed on the graves of relatives earlier in the week. I endured, and maybe secretly enjoyed, the remarks of the people around us about how much I’d grown since last year or how much I resembled my Dad, my grandfather, or some relative I didn’t know. I listened, and learned, as my parents and those around us renewed in hushed conversation friendships, events and experiences I was hearing about for the first time. Then a silence fell over those assembled as the cars pulled up, and out of them came the flags, the flowers, the rifles, the drums. Out came the men in uniforms reminiscent of the uniforms they used to wear, many of the men hunched, wrinkled and grayed with age. The ladies, some in uniform, some in fresh spring dresses, bearing flowers, and the local minister with Bible and notes in hand strolled to the big stone veterans marker where we all waited.
Then the muffled commands were given, the drums beat, and the uniformed marchers marched in clumsy cadence around a block of the cemetery until they reached the same marker. The men with rifles held back a few paces, arrayed at parade rest, awaiting their cue. The uniformed commander greeted and welcomed those assembled, the ladies read their flower dedications and laid their flowers at the marker. The minister delivered a message of remembrance and honor of those who sacrificed their lives for our good, usually accompanied with an evangelical call to remember Christ’s sacrifice for all. Then, the spoken commands, the clicking of the rifles, and the blast that made my skin jump, even when I thought I was ready for it. Then came the spine-tingling sound of taps, played by a young trumpeter hidden away in the trees somewhere behind us.
After my eighth birthday, a new tradition took root as every Memorial Day ceremony ended with a walk to the grave of my grandfather, a veteran of World War I. Growing up next door to his green tar-papered farmhouse, without electricity or plumbing, I had seen the evidence of his service. I had seen and held in my hands the black and white photos of a man in uniform looking suspiciously like my dad, the bugle and Army insignia, the green wool uniform he pulled out to show us every so often. Even his last sickness and passing were attributed by grandma to the gas warfare he’d been exposed to “in the war”.
While not a military family by career, my father also had been called to service during the Korean conflict and the so-called Cold War. The only person in my extended family before me to graduate from college, the draft interrupted his college studies. He completed a tour of duty with the Army’s missile program at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, before completing his college education. After a short teaching career, the rest of his life he devoted to the raising of a family, working as a journeyman machinist in factories, teaching and leading a local church.
Memorial Days during my high school years found me with a trumpet in my hands as that almost unseen guy playing “taps” behind a tree. Then, after graduation, I enlisted in the Air Force, following in the footsteps of my older brother. Assigned as a chapel manager in North Dakota in 1975, I lived and worked with men, women and their families who traded assignments in Southeast Asia in support of the Vietnam conflict for our shared vigil in the frigid prairies, on “alert” in nuclear missile launch facilities, the strategic bomber and fighter interceptor alert facilities. After completing college and a law degree, I served on Air Force active duty, and later in the Air National Guard, as a judge advocate.
This Memorial Day will find me at Mount Pleasant cemetery, as usual, and I expect the same ceremonial observance. But the memories added this year will be more recent, more ominous, more painful and frightening. Our nation is recoiling from a catastrophic attack within its continental shores. I will remember the faces of all the brave young men and women I have faced across the desk in the last few months, writing their last wills and testaments, helping them get their affairs in order to wage war against a foreign enemy with no boundaries, no sovereignty, no soldier’s code, no rules of war.
I will treasure the face of my oldest son I led in his oath of enlistment two months ago.
And I will remember sitting by an open grave at Mount Pleasant cemetery almost exactly one year ago, as my father’s American Legion comrades presented my mother with the folded flag of a grateful nation. And this Memorial Day, for the first time, I will lead my own family to the grave of my father, who died May 30, 2001, to pay our respects and thanks among the ranks of the fallen soldiers at Mount Pleasant cemetery.