We are not a family of troops. Other than a great-uncle who served in the Navy during WWII and my uncle who served as a Marine right before the Vietnam War began, we do not have any close relatives who were or are in the military. I suppose you could say we’re lucky this way, but more than that, we are lucky there are so many men and women who have and do bravely defend our country, freedoms and way of life. To them, I am extremely grateful and give my thanks to members of the armed forces in person whenever I see them. This usually happens at the airport. Last November, however, it happened at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC while I was with my kids.
Memorial sites are strange and evocative places. They are there to remind us of history, battles won and lost and events that changed the world. More importantly, they keep the lives of those who have died in our memories and hearts, even though we may never have known them ourselves. The space is sacred and you can feel it, as if the souls of those lost flutter in and out coming to visit us as much as we are there to visit them.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is particularly moving for me. It brings on a full rush of emotion, a combination of sorrow and gratitude and a million whys. It is a quiet place, a non-assuming structure, yet so very powerful. When we visited, there were small flags and six-packs of beer propped up against the walls along with flowers, packs of Marlboros, a lighter, folded notes, photographs. I lost myself for a few minutes, running my fingers across the etched names, reading them to myself, honoring them.
Then my big girls started asking me questions: How many Americans died in the war? (More than 58,000) Were women soldiers? (They did not serve in combat but were military nurses). Did any women die? (Yes, 67 civilians and eight military — their names are on The Wall). How are the names listed? (They are in chronological order by date of death rather than alphabetical order). Suddenly, instead of being simply a visitor, I became a teacher. When I didn’t have an answer, one of the veterans volunteering there for just this purpose, did.
In this time, in this country, my children are so blessed and they don’t even know it. They go to school, have a loving family, a roof, food, clothes, all kinds of electronics. They do not live under fear of attack. They don’t live with the anxiety of wondering if a parent or sibling is going to make it home from a tour of duty. It’s not that my children are particularly spoiled or take their safety or liberties for granted, it’s just that they don’t know any other way of life. For that I am grateful. For that, I am honored to teach them about the sacrifice and commitment of the men and women who do defend our country, keeping us safe, guarding our freedoms.
Before we walked away from The Wall towards the Lincoln Memorial, I stopped to speak briefly to the veteran who had answered our questions earlier, the girls standing behind me.
“Thank you for your service,” I said, trying hard not to cry. He smiled and reached for my hand.
Simple words that mean so much and teach so much. Thank our veterans, not just on Memorial Day or Flag Day or Veterans Day, but everyday.