It’s been said before. Most of us think of Memorial Day as “the unofficial start of summer,” with the first trip of the season to the beach, a backyard barbecue, or a good reason to sleep in on a Monday morning. The memorials, especially when I was younger, seemed all about the distant past. The evening news would show the President laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solder, and go on with other events of the day. This Memorial Day is a little different.
I have friends in the service, and I know they’ve lost friends, but I’ve been fortunate enough not to have a direct experience with such loss. So, I’ve experienced Memorial Day much like most of us, as a much needed day off in mid-May. I’ve rarely taken the time to visit or even think much about the many memorials around and what they mean to the people touched by the death of a loved one serving in the military.
Today however, I’m thinking about my experiences visiting memorials at our nation’s capital, and the connection I made with one service member in particular. This experience was a huge spark that led to my desire to begin this blog, but more importantly, it deepened my understanding of this Memorial Day holiday. The remainder of this post is adapted from my Facebook post at the time of my visit to D.C.
A few weeks ago while visiting Washington D.C. for the first time, I had one of the most moving experiences of my life. Approaching the entrance to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., I noticed an older man paging through the directory of names. I said to him, “so know some of those names then?” He said, “Many.” I asked if it would be ok to photograph him as he looked. He said, “Oh, sure,” then he graciously held his hand in place as I snapped a few photos and we both went on our way.
I paused for a few other photos of the wall, remembering all the controversy over its stark design and trying to let its impact sink in. I wondered if the young family below had found the name of a family member and if the kids would understand the significance of this place.
Later came across the same gentleman I’d photographed at the entrance, Capt. Ted Bronson. He’d met up with another man and some younger family members and I heard the pair talking as they searched the black granite. They were looking for the name of their friend and squadron member, Jim Graham.
Eventually they found Jim’s name on the wall and they spoke about their last mission together.
They’d been in the same A4 squadron flying off the Enterprise. He related the event of their wingman Jim Graham’s passing. “There were four of us in a flight from the Enterprise and … flying into a target in North Vietnam. Bud Wales was 1, Jay was 2, [gesturing to the other pilot with him], I was 3 and Jim Graham was 4. We rolled in on the target, one in, two in, three in, (he pauses..) and Jim, Jim was blown up right there, there in that spot…he didn’t have time for a radio transmission or anything.” The flight loitered in the area, watching their wingman’s parachute float to the village below. He was alive when he hit the ground. Later it was discovered their colleague had been killed with a pitchfork.
(Click below to hear “Jay” and Captain Bronson in their own words)
Being here in D.C., standing at the wall while Captain Bronson recounts his story, seeing the history, walking the streets and seeing the memorials all hits hard. It’s nearly impossible not to swell with great pride for this country and all it stands for but not also be afraid for its future. It’s heartening however to read in the pages on display at the National Archive that our history is riddled with scandal, corruption and other events that sound so similar to the concerns of today; and yet, the nation persevered.
I wrote this standing in the Rotunda of the National Archives having just viewed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution:
The Preamble of the Constitution says,”in order to form a more perfect union.” I think it is no accident that it does not say a “perfect” union. It is clear to me, with the sacrifices of our heroes, and the continuing struggles within the world, that the Founders knew ours must be a living breathing and evolving democracy and not one held back by strict constructionism. To honor all of those honored in our many memorials and to honor the pain they carry, we must move forward, never back, to continue forming that more perfect union until no one needs to watch their friends and colleagues go down in flames. The Declaration is faded, nearly illegible, but the ideals it represents and the forward evolution of those ideals must not fade. This Memorial Day I hope we can all remember not just the pain of those who have lost so much, but also remember to live in a way that exercises our rights, and builds the kind of society they gave everything to protect.
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