On Monday, I went to Memorial Day services in our little village of Great Falls, Va., about 20 miles from downtown Washington. About 80 local citizens turned out — not bad, given that only a few thousand souls live in the area. The site of the service, now 4 years old, is a small memorial area next to our public library. After the terrible events of Sept. 11, a handful of local folks conceived the idea for a memorial, got government permission, then financed and built it.
I like the way our little memorial came into being, just as most American Memorial Day sites and traditions since the Civil War did: by the desire and initiative of local folks to remember and honor those who died for us.
It is a modest site. No bronze statues or golden eagles. Just curving brick paths, local foliage, a few fitting words — such as honor and courage — carved in the bricks. And at the center of this outside memorial is a fine large local boulder, placed at the center of where we congregate to remember.
While the names of the honored dead are not chiseled in marble, each name is read out individually to the muffled clang of a bell. For such a small village (which, until a few decades ago, had merely hundreds of residents), there was a surprisingly long list. Along with the fallen soldiers were included the names of our neighbors who died Sept. 11. Among those names was my friend and late colleague Barbara Olson, who was busy on her cell phone letting our government know the impending disaster when she and her fellow passengers were obliterated as her plane flew into the Pentagon.
For that and other reasons, it is still personal for me. And it is my impression that it is personal for most people who planned and attended not only our little ceremony but also (as I have been noticing the past couple of years) ceremonies across the country and on the Internet, as well.
There seems to be a distinctive feature to those who still come to remember, to respect, to appreciate, to sing the patriotic hymns, to bow our heads, to lift our vision upward to our flag, to enter communion with both our living fellow citizens and our dead heroes: They tend to come from families with either active or retired military members. Not entirely, but largely. In our little congregation, there were Vietnam vets, a few CIA guys (I think), a newly minted Army second lieutenant, a World War II widow, and other family members.
The keynote speaker was a retired Vietnam War Army Ranger, who, after conspicuous heroism in battle, came back critically wounded and blind for life — and who has spent the past four decades in a productive and patriotic career — currently directing services for military families. His remarks were pointed and well taken. Why, he asked, will some people step forward and risk death, while most will not? His answer (correct, I believe) is that they are modest enough to recognize that some things are more important, such as America, our ancient freedoms and safe and good lives for our progeny.
But as I have talked with some of our young soldiers, as well as some vets and their families, I have begun to notice a budding awareness (if not yet quite resentment) among them that not only are a very small fraction of Americans prepared to wear the uniform and bear the burden of citizenship but also few of their fellow Americans even seem to be aware or appreciative of the sacrifice.
Of course, Memorial Day services historically have been more intensely attended during and shortly after wars than during long periods of peace. But we are at war now. As our speaker reminded us Monday, at the very moment we were gathered under a blue and sunny sky, young American soldiers were trudging down dusty landmine-filled streets for our safety’s sake. God bless them.
It cannot be healthy for our republic that not only do a mere sliver of our people bear the burden of military duty but also that even during war, increasingly it is those soldiers’ families who carry the far more modest duty of saying thank you.