Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lessons From Memorial Hall

I was eighteen the first time I entered her halls. 1981 was the beginning of my growth. I was struggling between being a teenager and becoming an adult. I had recently graduated from high school, and was in my first semester of college. Many life lessons started that evening, lessons I had not begun to realize. Men who would have a profound effect on me, change who I was, walked the corridors of Bancroft Hall in October of 1981; I had not yet met them.

He was my first real boyfriend, a 3rd class midshipman in 7th company from outside of Buffalo, New York. I loved the way he spoke; the pronunciations of certain words, beer, car, park, etc. were almost an infatuation to me. For a silly 18-year-old girl, his accent, his uniform, everything about him seemed so mature. I loved having a boyfriend and I wanted to keep him around for a while so I worked hard trying to impress him, let him know I liked him.

From the time I first sat in the kitchen splitting green beans with my grandmother I was taught a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  My afternoon class was was canceled so I decided with my added free time I would make chocolate chip cookies and surprise my mid.  With my baking complete, I bagged the cookies and headed to the Academy.

I had never surprised anyone before, and wondered as I parked my car if this was such a brilliant idea. Brushing aside my anxiety, I headed across the yard. I climbed the imposing steps to the entrance of Bancroft Hall. I marveled at the massive size of the foyer, the towering dome, and arches that adorned the ceiling. In front of me stood numerous flags, beyond them lay another massive staircase leading to a larger door with some type of strange seal of armor above it. Turning in a small circle I was in awe at the visual magnificence that surrounded me.

A sign directed me to turn left for the visitor’s reception area. At the window I informed the midshipmen on duty the company and name of whom I wished to visit. He called his company and relayed the message he had a visitor. I was
directed down the hall to the visitor's lounge and told my boyfriend would be there shortly.

The lounge was crowded with midshipmen and their girlfriends. Leather couches were taken up by couples mesmerized with each other’s presence. Trying not to stare at the various scenes playing out in front of me, I stood awkwardly in the corner and waited. Within a few minutes my boyfriend entered the room. Noticing how uncomfortable I was he invited me for a walk. Happily I agreed.

We exited the lounge and headed toward the entrance. Instead of turning right to go out the doors, he paused, then told me to follow him. We headed up the staircase I had been confronted by earlier. Ascending the steps I ran my hand along the wide banister. The room that stood above us commanded my attention. The breadth and prominence of the entrance overpowered every other feature in the building. I couldn't explain why but it took my breath away with it's overpowering silence.

On the landing outside the entrance, my boyfriend laid the bag of cookies by the wall. He brushed and straightened his uniform. He checked his posture and seemed to grow an inch or two taller before me. My confused look at his uniform checks told him I had never been inside the hall. He asked if I knew the significance of the Memorial Hall, I shook my head.

He explained as a plebe he had to wait for the upper classmen to disclose all the hall represented. What it meant to the midshipmen and alumni of the Academy.  Every midshipman had to earn the right to enter her chambers.  To him Memorial Hall needed no further explanation. If one listened; her walls, her chambers spoke for themselves. In time they would disclose their meaning to all who sought it.

The large hall at the top of the stairs, located across from the entrance to Bancroft Hall is not just any room, she is like no other. Memorial Hall sits at the heart of Mother B; the nickname affectionately given Bancroft Hall by the midshipmen.
Memorial Hall is the quintessence of the Academy. Everything the Academy represents, the values it teaches are all embodied within her walls. She holds the lessons of the past that will lead midshipmen forward; teach them to become better men and women, outstanding leaders.

From the moment I stepped within her walls I was overwhelmed. The massive hall was quiet, peaceful. The sounds of my shoes hitting her floors echoed through her towering architecture. A solemn silence resonated through the air. The mammoth columns seem to be guarding the memories of the Academy’s shipmates. Her walls divulged the stories of the Navy’s heroes, their struggles, their battles, their victories, disclosed through powerful images and baroque memorials.

Walking along her walls my boyfriend pointed out the heroes that stood out to him, officers he had studied or would study. I stood in the middle of the main room, stared upward through the large skylight, looking to the Heavens where her gallant men were surely residing.  Valor and honor surrounded me.

Memorial Hall was beautiful, magnificent in her glory. An indescribable sadness came over me as I stood silent. I was new to the Annapolis; I had not yet developed ties to the Naval Academy, her midshipmen and graduates. I did not understand the strange sensation the hall gave me. I would not fully comprehend what I was feeling, the sacrifices that lay within her walls and alcoves until many years later.

I did not enter the walls of Memorial Hall again for twenty some odd years. In my forties, no longer a naïve teenager.  I had gotten off work early and headed to Annapolis Mall to do some Christmas shopping. The gifts would have to wait, the sign at the end of Route 2 for the Naval Academy beckoned me. Memorial Hall was summoning me.

 Awhile back I had read a feature  about the re-dedication ceremony of Memorial Hall. She had undergone years of renovation. The article noted that her walls now contained panels listing former midshipmen who had been killed while serving in the military. Her alcoves made more hallow by the more than 2500 lost shipmates chronicled upon them. The ghosts and memories of the young men that once lived within the walls of Mother B. were now enshrined for all to see.

I convinced the guard to allow me to park at Preble Hall. I sat for a moment staring at the Academy grounds that I once roamed. I smiled, remembering all the friends I had made; the laughter, love and friendship I found within the Academy’s gates. I walked by the Chapel, down the path to Stribling Walk. Beyond Tecumseh lay Bancroft Hall, the cannon along the walls sitting silent vigil, announcing to all who enter Tecumseh’s court they are entering the home of American’s past, present and future leaders and heroes.

I climbed the massive stairs of Bancroft. The only facet time seemed to change was me. I stood under the rotunda at the entrance staring at the steps that once again lay in front me; my passage way to Memorial Hall. As I had done many years before I placed my hand on the banister, feeling every inch of her marble under my fingertips. My eyes fixed above on the sweeping letters that spelled “Don’t Give Up the Ship”. The memorial was flanked on one side by an American Flag and on the other a Naval Academy Flag. As I neared the top of the staircase, the more powerful the image became.

Standing at her entrance, I wondered why I had come back. Part of me wanted to see the new memorials, most of me paralyzed with fear by the emotions I knew awaited me. Two midshipmen exited the hall, nodded, acknowledging me as they passed by. The hall was now empty, safe to enter. I no longer had to worry about strangers witnessing my reaction when I first looked upon the memorial for the class of 1983.

As I had done many years before I looked up through the beautiful skylight above, this time saying a prayer for strength. Immediately I was drawn to the right side of the hall. It was as if my heart knew exactly where he was, the place where his name had been inscribed for all eternity.

I entered the alcove, walked to the corner. Before me hung a large set of marble panels, four across and eight down. Every two panels designated for an Academy class, the bottom two his class. I read, Class of Nineteen Hundred Eighty-Three; underneath the wording was the class crest. The fourth name down from the top, Lt. Robert T. Bianchi, USN. I reached out to touch him.

Tears began to roll down my cheeks as I ran my fingers over his inscription. I was taken back to the morning my phone rang and heard the words that forever changed my life, “Bobby is dead.”   That day I lost my innocence.  

There is something utterly wrong at seeing the name of a man whose arms once held me, whose hands wiped away my tears. The man to whom I had entrusted my secrets and dreams, a man taken from me when he was twenty-six and I was not quite twenty-four. At one time our bodies were one, joined as we made love. I remember the warmth of his skin and the tenderness of his voice the last time he touched me.

Now the pain of unexplainable separation, the years of want and hurt, streamed from my heart as tears. A river of crushed dreams played through my mind as I looked out the window. Closing my eyes, I imagined Bobby walking through the halls of Mother B, playing lacrosse on the Academy fields. I saw him smiling at me, his eyes lighting up when he first saw me standing next to the gate at the turf field. In that instant I knew he was happy to see me.

I had been lost in the memories of Bobby when I heard footsteps enter the hall. Not wanting anyone to witness my heartache I rushed down the stairs and took refuge in the bathroom.  I sat in the stall wiping my tears and reprimanding myself.  Bobby had been gone almost twenty years; I had made a promise long ago, no more tears, only smiles when I remembered him.

My brain had made a promise my heart could not keep. No amount of scolding would stop my tears. For years I had avoided all reminders of Bobby. I had cut ties to everyone and anything that might cause me to remember how much was lost when he died. Yet here I was standing in the institution that made him a man, the Academy he loved so much.

The core of Lt. Robert T. Bianchi enveloped me. Time seemed to fly backwards.  Once again I was twenty three and lost. I had to make a decision.  I could fight what I was feeling or embrace his memory and all the emotions that accompanied it.  I washed the tears from my face and looked in the mirror.  My eyes reflected the sorrow still within me. I took a deep breath, headed out the door and back up the steps. More valiant men deserved my respects.

I realized I could never go back to the first time I stepped within Memorial Hall. I was no longer naïve and had long given up the notion that people we love will grow old with us. I reentered the hall and faced the reality of life’s cruelty. I was gazing upon the sacrifices of the few, for the many.

I started on the left side of the hall, began reading the names of men who had died long before I was born.  As I progressed through the panels, comprehending the ranks of the men listed, I became cognizant that the young die in the military. Survivors retire. I stopped to pay special tribute to the men who had been awarded the Medal of Honor. Once again I looked up through the massive skylight to Heaven, prayed for control as I reentered the alcove memorializing the most recent graduating classes.  I purposely skipped the first row, Bobby’s class and started with the second.

Class of Nineteen Hundred Eighty-Four, the bottom name, Cdr. Peter G. Oswald, USN. I smiled, remembering the first time I was introduced to Pete after a football game. When I asked him what position he played he answered, offensive line. His job was to protect Nap (McCallum) and to open holes for him to run through.  Pete was a force to be reckoned with on the field, and I discovered a sweet caring soul outside of the game.

I will always cherish the conversation Pete and I had at Fran O’Brian’s. He gently explained my two biggest character flaws: First, I put distance between me and the men who tried to love me. Second, I refused to see all that was beautiful within me. Until I changed I would never be happy. In 1984 I thought his remarks were callous, now I understood he was giving me much needed guidance. He cared enough to be honest.

Class of Nineteen Hundred Eighty-Five, the bottom name, Cdr. Kevin A. Bianchi, USN.  Bobby’s brother. Like Pete he had died a few years before. Kevin always greeted me with a huge smile and arms spread wide for a hug. Usually the long strong embrace was followed by playful teasing, gentle ribbing. His way of trying to get me to let go of my fears and re-connect with his brother. His constant question, "What's the deal?"

Kevin was genuine. No matter what someone had done, a mistake that they had made, hurt they had inflicted, I never heard Kevin utter a bad word about anyone. He practiced and understood the importance of forgiveness. He had incredible faith in the goodness of people.

Bobby and Kevin were cut from the same cloth, they were honest, had unbelievable character, undeniable faith and courage; they were born leaders. They were extraordinary men who changed everyone who met them.  I was blessed; I knew both Bobby and Kevin; even if it was for only a short amount of time.

I continued down the wall, until the stones were void of any class insignia, barren of any memories. Knowing one day these untouched stones would be transformed into memorials, inscribed with names of unknown boys and girls, children now playing in the backyards across this country, I said a prayer.  I asked God for the impossible; that these stones forever remain vacant. I asked that he be gentle on the souls already enshrined within Memorial Hall.

Before leaving I went back to memorial for the class of 1983. I rested my hand on Bobby's name. My palm centered on his middle initial, almost hoping to feel his heartbeat one more time. I leaned in, whispered how much I loved him and he was missed by many. I told Bobby it was his turn to shepherd the future leaders of the military. The world was crazy, the men and women studying at the Academy needed guidance. I turned my hand over and gently caressed his name. I wiped my tears and as I had done numerous times before at his grave, I kissed my fingers, then lovingly placed them on his name before leaving.

Fearful I would break down; I quickly descended the stairs, passed under the rotunda and stepped out the front door.  I walked across the yard then stopped and turned back toward Bancroft Hall. Suddenly I realized Mother B had spoken to me. I felt her soul; I understood what Memorial Hall is to me.

Memorial Hall is not simply a place of heroes; the men and women we read about in text books, she embodies more. She silently teaches the future leaders of the Naval Academy from the experiences of her fallen. She defines the fearless determination, the gallantry, character and courage of the officers that graduate from the halls of Bancroft.

She enshrines within her walls the legacy of the everyday officers who three-hundred-sixty-five days a year put their safety, well -being, future, and dreams on the line with no questions asked for our freedom. Her fallen shipmates did not seek to be heroic, they were simply doing what they had been taught at the Academy; to lead, to protect, to “Never Give Up the Ship”.  Families, friends and shipmates will forever grieve the officers whose names adorn the chambers within Memorial Hall. They will always hold dear the pride the fallen carried in their hearts serving our country.

Memorial Hall, she cradles our tears, embraces our loved ones memories, honors their valor, carries their courage, instills the Academy’s values on all who pass through her chambers.  She is a constant reminder the cost of freedom is immeasurable. Memorial Hall holds the past of the Academy as well as her future not yet realized. She is simply the heart and soul of every Officer that graduates from the United States Naval Academy.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Brennan Daigle - Army Strong til the End

Tonight my heart is sad. It seems lately my eyes have cried too many tears. My soul weeps yet again. Cancer has won one more battle. Heaven has opened it’s gates to another young angel. For a little more then 17 months a small boy courageously battled the enemy within him, a rare form of cancer, embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. Early on the morning of May 5, 2011, as the stars shone brightly, before the sun rose, his war ceased, his life on this earth ended, a boy of undeniable courage earned his eternal wings.

I never met Brennan Daigle but I followed his battle against cancer on facebook and through the news. I learned his favorite bible verse is Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Few men exhibit the strength and courage Brennan demonstrated as a young child.

Brennan’s fight began on October 5, 2009 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at the Texas Children’s Hospital. Brennan wrote on his facebook page when he heard the news “I was scared, upset, sad and angery”. He put his fears aside and went about battling this heinous disease. He endured endless bouts of chemotherapy and radiation, yet cancer did not stop Brennan from doing all the things he loved. He played with his friends, he went fishing, hunting, played x-box and loved all things Army. October 12, 2010, a little over a year from his first diagnosis Brennan and his family learned his tumor was still growing and had mutated. Cancer was invading his body, but it would not penetrate his soul. He continued to combat the enemy within him. His faith never wavered. He vowed to spread the word of God, so others could see his grace, witness his faith and be inspired by his courage. As part of his mission Brennan started a facebook page. With over 44,000 fans, facebook allowed a young boy from Westlake, Louisiana to inspire countless others here and abroad. His fans would never meet Brennan but they will also never forget him.

On February 10. 2011, in a small doctor’s office, Brennan and his mom were told his battle was coming to a close, there was nothing more modern medicine could do for him. He was sent home to spend the last few weeks of his life with his family. I cried an unbelievable amount of tears when I read as they were leaving the doctors office Brennan questioned his mom, “I won’t see you everyday?” I know death can be unkind and unjust but no mother should ever have to tell their child they are going to die. No parent should ever have to bury their son or daughter. That was the inevitable future that laid before his mother, Kristy Daigle. Ever true to their faith his mom assured Brennan he would be okay, he would be with his grandmother in Heaven, he would be with Jesus. His family would join him one day. The doctors gave Brennan two weeks to live. Cancer and his doctors did not fully comprehend how strong Brennan truly was.

The strength and faith of a child can not be matched by any pharmaceutical. Brennan would battle on, he would not stay home, wait to die, he would continue to live. He continued to go to school. He wanted to be with his friends, he wanted a normal life for as long as possible. One of Brennan’s wishes was to spend his final days not with a celebrity, not with a sports star but with the men and women of our armed services. The soldiers who fight for our freedom, they were his heros. On February 26, 2011, more than 40 soldiers from the 1st MEB of Fort Polk stood at attention as Brennan arrived at the Chateau du Bon Reve (Castle of Good Dreams) to celebrate his tenth birthday. Every soldier shook his hand as he passed through the formation, each realizing although they had just returned from war, this 10 year old little boy had more courage than any combat veteran. Brennan was inducted as an honorary member of the U.S. Army National Guard. He was awarded a jacket, a coin that represents excellence and merit, and a set of dog tags. One with his name, the other dog tag with the seven values of the U.S. Army; Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Service. Brennan was also given a key to the city of Sulphur, Louisiana and made an Honorary Mayor for the day. One of the many highlights of his birthday, when Brennan and his best friend Kaleb were given a ride in a real army Humvee. Many said it was a perfect birthday for a ten year old little boy.

For me it wasn’t perfect, perfect would be Brennan’s eleventh birthday, twentieth, fortieth, seventieth birthday. Brennan unfortunately represents a sad fact, cancer is the number one killer of children. Cancer knows no age barrier, it is a disease of the old and sadly the young. In 2007 approximately 10,400 children were diagnosed with cancer, of those more than 1500 died from the disease. The number may seem low to some, but what if your child was one of the 1500? One is too large a number!

We fall in love, we give birth, we raise our families. We grow old watching our children marry and give birth to our grandchildren. Our children repeat the cycle of life, so shall their children. That is the way we are taught life should be, but Brennan Daigle is a reminder that wonderful cycle of life is not a reality for all families. Brennan like the more than 1500 children who will die from cancer this year, lost his battle, lost his future when he succumbed to cancer in the early morning hours of May 5, 2011.

Brennan will never go to high school, he will never have a girl friend, experience the wonderful excitement of his first kiss. There will never be a prom for Brennan. He will never go to college, he will never marry. His parents, Albert and Kristy will never hold his children in their arms. His sister Lauren, will no longer have a baby brother to hug. She can not text message or call Brennan when she needs to talk like brothers and sisters often do. She will have to look to the Heavens to see him, hear him, feel him. Brennan had an unbelievable strength as he battled cancer, now his family must echo his strength and learn to live with out him.

The lesson from Brennan: from time to time we all have bouts of self pity, for one reason or another. When that moment arises, when you think life is way too hard visit Brennan’s facebook page and remember his story. Rummage through his photos. No matter what cancer threw at Brennan he fought back, he never gave up, lost faith. A month after he was told he was going to die you can see the joy in him when a brigade from the Texas Lonestar Chapter of Pink Heals led by a pink camo army truck arrived in front of his house. The restored army truck presented to Brennan as a memorial for his battle against cancer. Even when the tumor in his brain and the medication caused his face to swell and he could no longer smile, he would not give up. Brennan would take his finger and hold a smile in place for the camera. Four days before he died Brennan attended Brayden’s Dream Day to show support for another child battling cancer. This small wonderful ten year old boy, never lost his faith, never lost his compassion, never lost his courage. Brennan fought til the end and never once felt sorry for himself. So on those horrible days when life seems it’s darkest, understand and rejoice in the message Brennan was teaching all of us, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Brennan Diagle “At Ease” your battle is over, it is your time to rejoice with the Lord.