Reflections on particularly emotional Veterans Day
Polk County Itemizer-Observer
December 2, 2003
We need to recognize the sacrifice that many of our friends and neighbors are making -- especially in light of the last few weeks.
As a military officer temporarily assigned to protect our nation's capital, I (like many) took the opportunity to observe the Veterans Day events at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Memorial.
Veterans Day is something special. It should be. As the news constantly reminds us, we are at war. And for those of us directly involved in the ongoing global war on terrorism, there is no more fitting place to be than among the stone reminders of battles past.
It feels as if it has been a lifetime since I was recalled to active duty in September 2001. Although 2002 was hard, 2003 was even more difficult.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, our unit lost a good sergeant. A young family lost a husband and father. And I lost a friend.
Unfortunately, this is becoming even more common.
These last few weeks have been very costly. Across America, a new generation of families is learning old truths. Freedom comes at a high cost.
As the day approached, I knew I needed to do something to remember the brave young warriors that came home to the silent welcome of Dover.
I say this because I feared that Veterans Day would leave me depressed and sad. But this was not the case. In truth, this holiday
I was given a special gift -- a series of moments that brought clarity and purpose.
For those that don't know it, the Korean and Vietnam memorials come alive the night before Veteran's Day.
Ad hoc reunions of kindred spirits light up the night, cheer up the depressed and provide a sense of perspective for those that seek connection.
Candles, songs, small groupings of old men trying to fit in worn uniforms. It is a camp meeting of people united through sacrifice. They gather from all over the nation to mourn, cry, laugh and celebrate.
As I made my way to the Vietnam Memorial and Korean Memorial, I was struck with what I saw in the Capitol Reflection Pool.
Recently drained of water because of the World War II Memorial construction efforts, it was a shock at first. Instead of the familiar image of the Washington Monument shining in reflected magic as a beacon of hope -- the ground was dark, empty somehow.
The only reflection came from the scattered pools that formed from the storm the day before.
In those small pools, it was possible to see the Washington Monument or more precisely, a glimpse of the Washington Monument.
Jagged, disjointed images reflected like a collage of snapshots. It stood as a ghost rising from the void. Interestingly, this haunting image of the disfigured giant stuck with me.
As I went to the Ceremony at Arlington to see and hear from heroes past, I took in the vista space and tried to control the flood of emotions that assaulted my senses.
It was a powerful thing to sit, listen and wonder how many of those present were only here because of those that surrounded us -- to consider the sacrifice symbolized with each white cross.
Throughout the ceremony, the jagged image crept back into my thinking. Was it a silent comment upon our current situation, or was it a subtle reminder that meaningful things (such as the World War II Monument) require at least a temporary sacrifice?
Was the pool empty, or was it merely waiting to be filled? Was the reflection a symbol -- our democracy -- the construction of human labor that from time to time needs to be rebuilt, cared for, and reborn through purpose?
We wandered among the crowd; soon I was standing at the feet of Mr. Lincoln. It was surreal. It was perfect.
Along the solemn black wall thousands of red rose pedals, framed pictures, stuffed bears, dog tags, and even sealed letters were purposefully placed with loving care.
The shrine was alive with memory.
All around it people stood -- just "being together" in subdued dignity, hushed pride.
The spirit of compassion outweighed the sorrow of loss that day. People listened to each other, hugged openly and shared the moment.
People from every walk of life were at least for the moment -- one people.
Bikers, yuppies, hippies, farmers, soldiers, mothers, sisters, widows and children choose to remember the price of their freedoms.
Whatever their economic, political or social views, they understood the meaning of sacrifice. These people that probably wouldn't give each other the time of day in another circumstance took the time to share with one another because they knew the terrible costs of sustaining the America they love.
As I took in the moment, my eyes were drawn back toward the cement basin that is the Reflection Pool.
This day, small clusters of children of every race laughed, talked and played in the shadow of the Monument. In that space -- the place designed to reflect the grandeur of Washington's ideals -- the children played.
And then it struck me. That day, the reflection of our greatest promise -- were those children. Our freedom will shine through their opportunities, their victories and their sacrifices.
The haunting image of the empty pool and the distorted reflection both warning and promising. Freedom is up to us.
We will refill the pool or we won't. We will restore the promise that made this nation great or we won't. We will leave this place to our children in a better condition than we found it, or we won't.
Each of us has a role to play. Take a moment. Find your own way to serve and make each day Veteran's Day.
(Paul Evans is the former mayor of Monmouth. He is on active duty with the Air National Guard.)