I don’t believe in war. I abhor violence. I aspire to have a world living in peace. I believe in Mr. John Lennon’s prose “all you need is love” to resolve all problems. But that does not stop me from honoring, respecting and honestly loving all our soldiers, veterans and their families.
I was born on an United States Air Force Base in Spain because my father was serving his country during the Vietnam War. Growing up Memorial Day was important because my grandfather made it important. He had polio as a child and was unable to serve his country in WWII. But he was proud to honor those who had done so and he made sure we understood the importance of the day. My uncle Les, his son served in the army and is a veteran. There were no Memorial Day parades in Newark when I was growing up but PBS always showed the President at Arlington National Cemetery laying the wreath on the Unknown Soldiers grave. We watched in solemn awareness. I was always amazed at all those small American flags in front of each grave.
In my young adult life, college and directly after graduation, Memorial Day became a weekend of fun. It was and is “Fleet Week” in New York City a time-honored celebration of our Navy and some Marines who were aboard ships that dock for the week. Back then there were multiple events around NYC sponsored by Fleet Bank, which is now Bank of America. My girls and I partied with some of the most exciting fun and dedicated military guys in town. I even learned how to recognize the officers from the enlisted men by their uniforms. It was the kick off weekend for the summer and a fun time in The City. The United States was in peace times. It was after the Gulf War and before 9/11.
I have friends who were in the service and fought in the Gulf War, but they all came home unharmed, at least physically. But being young and carefree their experiences did not interest me. I was of course concerned for their safety, but I had no desire to know what was going on with them personally. I was against the war being politically for peace and it angered me that my friends had to go over there and kill for their country. As the saying goes, “with age comes wisdom”. But my wisdom was earned through the tragedy of experiencing 9/11 and for most of my adult life the US has been at war.
A few years ago, sitting in a friends kitchen relaxing after dinner, I asked one of my mentors Marcie, who has since passed, how she met her husband. Marcie was in her mid 80’s and she started the story, “It was after the War”. I interrupted her and asked “Which war Marcie?” Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and looked shocked. Marcie shook her head and said “Good question my dear. It is sad that your generation will know about a multitude of wars. But in my time, when we spoke of war there was only one war, World War II, was The War.”
In deed I have known about war and combat actions all of my life. The Viet Nam war ended when I was about six, but I have no personal recollection about that war. I have seen enough combat invasions, wars and military missions, starting in 1983 with the Invasion of Grenada to the current wars we entered into after that horrific day 9/11/2001. It has been thirteen years of hearing the names of over 7,000 soldiers who have lost their lives, as well as learning about all of the civilian lives lost in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
My view about Memorial Day was transformed once again because of the aftermath of our wars to so call end terrorism. In the past 13 years it has been heart breaking to witness how war changed my society. At some point I even had fatigue, I could not listen or read about the wars the US was conducting. It was just too much. I watched many families right in my own community bury their loved ones. I also watched young children loose either one or both of their parents.
Since I moved to Washington, DC, in 2007 my Memorial Day weekends have become a ritual of honor. This historic District (DC is a District – not a city or state- more on that later) is a majestic place to be for the most serious and reflective American holiday. Now I spend at least one day of the weekend at Arlington National Cemetery. My first Memorial Day weekend here in DC was in 2008. Each year I have gone over to the back entrance of the Arlington National Cemetery by the US Marines Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima) that brings you into Sections 27 & 49 of the cemetery.
It is a quiet area known to locals. One of my mentor’s husbands a retired Naval officer gave me directions to this entrance my first year. It is a wonderful spot to enter this most somber and hallow place. It was a beautiful crisp sunny day in Arlington, VA and walking through the gates I saw for the first time with my own eyes the multitude of small American flags placed in front each individual white head stone. It was and remains a magnificent striking view that humbles and makes clear to me the ultimate sacrifice our soldiers make to protect our country.
This Memorial Day weekend I decided to do something different and go to the newly renovated Arlington National Cemetery’s Welcome Center and take a tour. It is the 150th anniversary of the cemetery and my trip there was absolutely amazing. It was on yet another beautiful May sunny day. The welcome center was full of families, people of all origins and of course many of the Rolling Thunder biker groups who come here each year and honor Memorial Day in a plethora of tributes to our fallen soldiers. I learned so much that day about the cemetery’s history, present work and future plans. It is an active cemetery conducting funeral services Monday through Saturday (except federal holidays) 27 to 30 times a week. I learned the origin of the cemetery which was land owned by George Washington Parke Custis who was the grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of President George Washington. It was the over whelming Civil War casualties and the lack of space in DC area cemeteries that led to the creation of this land becoming a burial place for soldiers.
The Welcome center is a somber and remarkable place with wonderful pictures and historic objects of past wars and traditional military objects. There are gifts from other countries dedicated to all United States soldiers who have fought around the world. There is a memorial dedicated to the nurses who have helped take care of and who have lost their lives along side our soldiers. One of the many new things I learned about was The Freedman’s Village established in 1863 as a campground for slaves escaping Virginia and Maryland (see link below).
Another new thing I learned was about Section 5 of the Arlington National Cemetery. This is the section where dignitaries are buried. In honor of the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education I decided to pay homage to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s gravesite. Walking the cemetery grounds is not for the out of shape, it has long winding roads that go up and down hills. But there is a trolley system that will take visitors around the cemetery – although it is not accessible for my friends with mobility disabilities (something we will have to work on).
It is a nice walk from the Welcome Center to Marshall’s site and coming up the hill you can see the grey tombstone marking where he lies. Each week this year someone is setting flowers at the site so you see the beautiful bouquet from the road. It is an awe inspiring view. I went to the site, stood over his grave and could smell the wonderful fragrance from the bouquet of the flowers. I took a few pictures from different angles. Then I had a moment of silence and thanked this man, saying a prayer for his courage and work. I am a young African American woman with a great education and a fabulous dream career in part because of this most profound Supreme Court case he won in 1954.
I am blessed to live such a life and to be able to enjoy and savor living in Washington, DC. I look forward to writing more posts like this one; that I hope will let you see the Beltway in a different perspective and that will inspire you to come and visit this wonderful place.
Thank you to all of our soldiers for everything you do and know that we will always honor your work and never forget your sacrifices.
*See my pictures by clicking on this link: https://www.icloud.com/photostream/#A9GJDfWGJpuO6W
To learn more:
Arlington National Cemetery: open 365 days a year
The 150th Anniversary – Washington Post article: