It was a blustery day in January when I had my first opportunity to tour the Mall of Washington DC. At that point in my life I liked to think I had a pretty good handle on what military appreciation was all about. I was, after all, the loyal wife to a soldier who was deployed the first year of our marriage. Yes, I knew what American pride and patriotism was all about. But I would soon learn how deep this appreciation really runs... when you really understand how you really can't understand... Not if you have never strapped on combat boots and wondered if you would make it home to your family... Not if you have never had a marine on your doorstep telling you your child or your spouse or your parent is coming home in a flag-draped coffin.
It was exciting to walk around this place so rich with our nation's history. I was in awe of seeing these buildings and monuments in real life. I felt like I was walking around a post card, or possibly even a history book. The famous buildings, the incredible monuments, the narrow roadways, the quaint bridges, the original architect in all its intricate beauty... I couldn't get enough of it!
But then the names... All those hundreds of thousands of names of the fallen at each of the war memorials... It was too much to take in. There were too many of them to really wrap my mind around. The haunting reality was dulled by the shocking page after page, wall after wall of names. I could not put a face, a wife, a family to any of those names, but I knew that one or all of that existed for each one of those unending names.
I tried to read the names and remember them. But there were so many, they were all blending together. I just wanted to zero in on one name and know, How old were you? Did you have a sweetheart? Children? Did you suffer? Did you receive an honorable burial? Do your battle buddies still live the nightmare of your final breath? What happened? Why did it have to end that way?
As we concluded our time by the Vietnam War Memorial Wall and began to walk away, I turned and saw an elderly man near the wall. I had noticed him earlier as he left gifts and photographed the names that he knew while he wiped his tears. He knew the answers to the questions that were running around my head. He had stories... Painful stories.
And now here he stood, his tender memorial mission completed, staring at the wall. Tears quietly rolling down his cheeks. His bereaved posture and the flag flying at half-staff behind him reflected in the wall of names the very image of what freedom costs. It took my breath away.
Suddenly I understood how little I understood. I have never signed up to put my life on the line for the sake of my country. I have never said goodbye to my loved ones and sailed across seas, as it were, to a hostile land. I have never seen war. I have never had a battle buddy; I can't know the connection. I have never experienced the trauma of watching my closest friend in the world die a gory and gruesome death when it could have or should have been me. I don't have the memories. I don't have the inability that naturally comes with the trauma of war to communicate the pain...
Now I understand. And I will never, ever forget.
Memorial Day is to Remember, Appreciate, and Never Ever Forget what it costs to be free.