Thursday, November 12, 2009

Veterans Day, Observed

On Memorial Day this year I wrote about my incredibly moving experience at the Vietnam War Memorial. I like to think that I appreciate America's Veterans and support the troops every day of my life, but this year I have made a conscious decision to spend my day off on Memorial Day and Veterans Day paying my respects and using my day off to observe the holiday as it was intended. Which, as it turns out, has nothing to do with barbeque.

On Tuesday I mentioned to a coworker that my plan was to visit Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day. I didn't necessarily want to go for the wreath-laying ceremony, but I wanted to pay my respects at the final resting place of so many of America's heroes. She was interested in coming with me so we coordinated and met at the Cemetery in the afternoon.

Neither of us have a personal relationship with anyone who has been buried at Arlington. I have only been there once before and for my previous trip I had the honor of going with someone in the Navy who was visiting members of his team who were killed in Iraq. This time I had no one in particular to visit, and the aforementioned Sailor is currently back on another deployment in Iraq. So many friends and loved ones were in my thoughts and in my heart on this day already, I fully expected my trip to Arlington to be an emotional experience. I had no idea that the most moving moment on this day would come from my coworker.

She was especially interested to visit the Cemetery for the first time. She has only been a U.S. Citizen for about a year, but came to the U.S. from Romania twenty years ago. She is an amazing person and she appreciates her U.S. citizenship more than anyone I have ever known. I suppose living under Communist rule will have that effect on a person.

We arrived to Arlington in the afternoon and decided to venture out on our own rather than join a tour. I was concerned that she would want to leave quickly because of the rain, but the weather may as well have been 75 degrees and sunny with how enthusiastic she was to walk the hallowed grounds of the Cemetery. We walked to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and she took a photograph and wiped the tears from her face. After that we set off walking, nowhere in particular, just walking past the numerous grave stones and paying our respects as best we could. The rain came down, the temperature became colder, and through it all, we walked. As the winds came and tried to claim our umbrellas, we held on tight and walked along quietly. Acutely aware that our battle with the elements was no sacrifice at all compared to the experiences of men and women in uniform, their families, and the men and women whose names surrounded us. Walking silently with no one aware of our presence but the fallen heroes long gone, we swelled with respect and awe for the losses our country has suffered.

As we walked along and commented on names, graves and inscriptions, Cristina carried a small American flag and looked for somewhere to direct her symbol of respect and appreciation. As I continued to walk and wrestle the wind for control of my umbrella, she fell behind a bit, and when I turned to look back, she was paused before a grave stone along the path. She knelt down on the wet earth, put her hand on the stone so tenderly, as if she were caressing a member of her own family. She drove the flag into the earth and said, "Thank you, Major Young - for fighting for me." She stood up, dusted herself off, and leaned over and kissed the top of the gravestone before turning to continue down the path.

It was the most beautiful gesture I have ever seen. One woman with no personal ties, sharing an intimate moment at the final resting place of someone who will forever remain anonymous. To everyone who has served or is currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces - never doubt the effect your sacrifices have made. It has become a catchphrase in popular culture for everyone to "support the troops" but today I saw with my own eyes how deeply this support is felt by someone who still has emotional scars from living with communism and fascism in her own life. Someone who truly appreciates her freedom and her citizenship in ways that I will never understand, but am so privileged that she has shared part of her story, and her Veterans Day, with me.

1 comment:

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