Friday, May 28, 2010

Don't Let Them Be Forgotten!

As Memorial Day approaches I find myself reflecting back to my last month as a Girl Scout, May 1978.  My final community service project, our troop volunteered to work with the Boy Scouts at various cemeteries placing American Flags next to the headstone of all who served. 

Upon our arrival we were broken into small groups, shown how to insert the flag and informed of cemetery protocol.  After orientation I was handed a bundle of flags, a map of the cemetery and a list containing the section, row numbers and the names of the men and women I was responsible for honoring.

Walking across the lush green lawns I marveled at how many headstones there were, how large the cemetery was.  With my section located I began to walk down the rows, inserting my flags at the base of each headstone. As I pushed each flag into the ground, I found myself reading the rank, the birth day, death date, branch of service and the war served on each headstone.

Before moving to the next headstone I would say a short prayer, “Dear God, please be with…inserting their name.” As the morning wore on, my brain began to calculate the age of the person at the time of their death. I marveled at how old some of the veterans were when they passed.  With my first section complete I headed back to the check-in table for my new assignment.  

With more flags I bounded back across the cemetery in search of my new assignment. In my first section, the majority of birth years were before the 1930s.   The wars cited on the headstones were World War I, World War II and Korea. I was not prepared for the new conflict I would encounter inscribed on the stones.

As I rounded the walkway the word “Vietnam” seem to scream at me from her rows of silent memorials.  It was a country, a war I was familiar with.  Growing up after dinner we would watch the evening news, the nightly broadcasts from the war front as well as the peace protests on the home front. I remember the sounds of my mom’s frequent sobs while my dad was deployed and her tears of joy when the President announced the war was over.

In sixth grade I had a wonderful teacher, Mr. Hopper. Every morning after taking roll he would read a few pages from the book, “In the Presence of Mine Enemies.”  The story of Capt. Howard Rutledge, his years as a POW at Hanoi Hilton and the struggles of his family back home while he was a prisoner. Cognizant of the times we lived in, he often said, he wanted his students to be thankful and not hateful of the men and women who served.  He hoped through Capt. Rutledge’s words/story we would better understand the sacrifices made to ensure our freedom.

I spent many Saturday nights watching old war movies with Dad, most were on World War II but numerous took place in Vietnam; “The Green Berets” and “Go Tell the Spartans” to name two.  A few weeks before my Dad had taken me to see “The Boys of Company C” at the Fort Meade Movie theaters. Hollywood had introduced me to the more sanitized version of war. I believed I understood the price of war, the cost of serving our country.

Nothing hits the heart stronger than seeing the reality of war carved in stone.  One headstone would illustrate the absoluteness of the “fallen” more than any other previous lesson.  It would demonstrate war does not adhere to boundaries; it will take the young more than the old.

Half way down the row my soul awakened as my heart stopped. Sadly time has erased the name inscribed on his headstone from my memory but not the dates I read. I remember the sadness that overwhelmed me, the instant ‘bond’ I felt when I read his birthdate, July 11, 1952. We were born on the same day. He was only twenty years old when he died, a few years older than I was at the time.  Tears cascaded down my cheeks as I read the words, “Only Son” inscribed and worn below his name.

My mind seems to ponder things more than most. My brain began to spin, fill with questions as I stared at his headstone.  Filled with sadness I sat and tried to come up with some logical explanation to the question that will never be adequately be answered, why? Not understanding then what I know now, why is the most difficult question that we may never have answered. The one question that will constantly tear at the heart.

Most of the graves before his I could tell someone had cleaned their headstones. Many had flowers on them, coins, small tokens, a sign someone cared, someone remembered them. His lay bare, his headstone covered with a light coat of dirt from the wind. Sadness seemed to encompass his headstone.

I wondered if his parents were they still alive. If they lived nearby why didn’t they clean his grave? Did he have a girlfriend, someone who loved him when he died? Why didn't someone care him enough to visit, take care of his headstone?  He was only twenty, I was positive he had no children. 

As I sat at the foot of his grave, my tears flowed and the questions continued. Who would remember him years from now? Who would bring him flowers on his birthday? Who would cry on the anniversary of his death? Did anyone remember him? Did his high school friends still talk about him, share their memories. Was it possible for a grave to be lonely? If so he was.

My tears brought the realization, he would never coach his son and never walk his daughter down the aisle. There were no more football games, Saturday night parties or summer days at the beach. He ceased to be and without children time would eventually erase all memories of him. The only thing left to carry on his name was his headstone.

Trying to comfort myself, I pulled my bundle of flags close to my heart. Noticing my tears and the fact I was sitting, Mrs. Cislo, our girl scout leader, came over and sat beside me. I wiped the tears from my eyes and cried, “We share a birthday. He was only twenty. He was a kid. That’s not fair."

She wrapped her arm around me and answered. “War is not fair. It takes a toll, more on the young than the old, Vietnam especially.”

She patted me on the shoulder, told me it was time to get moving. There were soldiers who needed a flag placed as a tribute to their service. As I stood I asked her the question that haunted me the most. “If they have no children, if they never married, who’s going to remember them twenty years from now?”

Her answer was simple and direct, “Hopefully after today, Denise, you will. If I taught you well, you will teach your children to remember the forgotten. And the lessons will continue to pass down.”

I brushed the grass off my shorts and grabbed my list of names from the ground. I started to walk away but couldn't. I paused, stepped back so I was standing in front of his grave once again. I kissed my fingers then placed them on the top of his headstone, and said, “Rest in Peace.”

That afternoon as I placed American flags on the soldiers graves, my prayer changed; “God please be with…. let them be remembered, please don’t ever let them be forgotten.”

I think this Memorial day I will travel back to the cemetery and see if I can find the boy who shares my birthday, let him know I may have forgotten his name but not his sacrifice. He has always stayed in my heart and always will.

My prayer this weekend will be the same as it was 32 years ago, this time I hope you will join me…
“Dear God, please don’t let them be forgotten.”

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