World War II veterans and others attend the Pearl Harbor Day event at the World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C., Dec. 7, 2018. The National Park Service and the Friends of the National World War II memorial co-host the event, which marked 77 years since the surprise attack on Oahu, Hawaii. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
Living in Washington, D.C., you find yourself visiting the same handful of sights every time you have an out of town guest. For the most part, you enjoy the time spent with your friends and family and less the actual sights of the city. The district changes from winter to summer more quickly than my native home of New Hampshire. By the time April comes, the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the temperature has climbed into the 80s. It’s the ideal time for family and friends to visit — sunny weather that’s not too hot and not too cold.
It was May 2015; Memorial Day was fast approaching, and we had the perfect spring weather. My father was in town visiting, so we set out to explore the city, saving the war memorials for Memorial Day as they are more meaningful when attended by groups of veterans. As we drove from our suburban home to the memorials, we experienced more traffic than is typical. We did not think much of it at the time and continued into the city.
We started at the Lincoln Memorial, and as we climbed the steps, we saw people milling about everywhere. Huge groups of motorcycles were thundering through town and more war veteran hats than I could count. We continued on to the Korean War Memorial and the haunting beauty of the statues as they appear to cautiously make their way through the low brush. I am always reminded of the U.S. Marines of the Chosin Reservoir as I peer into the faces of the statues and contemplate the freezing temperatures and inhospitable landscape these warriors were forced to endure.
The Korean War Memorial generally gets far fewer visitors than many of the others, but on this day, there were more than usual. Looking around, many wore “Korean War Veteran” hats and solemn, far-away expressions. Looking upon these men filled me with a mix of pride and profound sadness that stayed with me for days.
After a final moment of silence, we walked around the reflecting pool to the Vietnam War Memorial. As we crested the hill in front of the memorial, we took in the rolling field of grass before going down the walkway where the massive stone wall came into view. The mirror finish of the granite keeps the thousands of names carved into its face hidden from view until viewers are standing in front of the imposing structure. From this vantage point, there are an orderly array of names. These names cover every inch of the granite face — a total of 86,110 square feet.
Once again, we saw groups of veterans huddled together, some with a grim set to their lips, others hugging, and more than a few openly weeping. We picked our way through this sea of emotion, no one daring to mutter a word.
On the other side of the Vietnam Memorial, the imposing towers of the World War II Memorial can be seen in the distance. As we made our way, we reflected on the day thus far and the weight of the emotions we had witnessed on the faces of the veterans and family members. My thoughts began to turn toward those I had served with — how witnessing their deaths would make me feel and wondering if I would ever feel normal again. I realized that non-veterans experienced these events very differently than veterans.
As we entered the World War II Memorial, we were met with a surprising sight — a large group of grizzled World War II veterans on what I would later learn was an Honor Flight. Honor Flight is a group dedicated to ensuring every World War II veteran has the chance to see the monument in Washington. The imposing granite pillars are carved with the names of the states that sent young men to war, which creates an oval barrier around the monument. However, the most powerful component of the memorial is an unassuming fountain on the back wall sheltered by the pillars.
As we moved slowly through the throng of veterans, we found ourselves facing the small pool. This pool has no fancy jets and is only a few inches deep, yet it demands the most attention because of what lies on the granite wall behind it: 4,000 golden stars. Each star is about the size of a half-dollar and represents 100 American lives lost during the war. As the enormity of this number sits with you, it is multiplied by the reflection of all 4,000 stars in the stillness of the pool. A low granite wall is all that separates you from the pool, which is inscribed with, “Here we mark the price of freedom.”
An older gentleman dressed in slacks and a sweater (despite the heat) was slowly wheeled ahead of us to sit in front of the inscription. From his position, he could not help but see the 4,000 stars and the 4,000 more that reflected from the pool’s surface.
As my father and I approached the pool, I reached out a hand to hold him back. The man in the wheelchair needed a moment. We watched as he stared boldly into the stars reflecting the afternoon sunlight. We watched as the man’s face fell, his once stoic expression replaced with the shear agony of an injured man. There were no family or friends to console him or wipe away a tear, just the man and the many stars before him.
As his grief overtook him, he began to dig around in the pocket of his slacks. After finding what he was searching for, he sat, hands folded, grappling with his emotions. After a time, he broke through the grief and his face changed. The grief was replaced by determination as he set his mouth in a thin line. He stared at the stars, cocked his wrinkled hand, and paused — then, with all the strength he could muster, he hurled something into the pool 2 feet in front of him. As a tear fell from his eye, he gave the stars a final look before waving for someone to take him away.
As I wiped a tear from my eye, I walked over to the man whom I had watched for the better part of an hour, grasped his hands in mine, and thanked him. I have never been in the habit of thanking veterans — I imagine that is largely due to my own discomfort when I am thanked — but I felt compelled by what I had seen to shake this man’s hand, look him in the eye, and give a heartfelt thank you.
His hands were wrinkled and soft, but I could feel the strength in them. These hands that had carried a rifle for years and dug in the cold ground. Hands that had pressed against the wounds of a brother as his life slipped away and saluted the flag he believed in so resolutely that he was willing to risk everything in its defense. I gave him a final nod, which he returned, and a “Semper Fidelis” as I walked away.
Like many others, I have confused the meaning of Memorial Day, often thinking of it as a second Veterans Day. A day to go camping, grill with your family, and take a rest from work. What many people forget is the real meaning of Memorial Day, the countless lives lost or changed forever that allow us the freedom to celebrate with our families in this way. We thank a veteran but barely spare a passing thought to the thousands of men who have died.
As that small reflecting pool at the back of the World War II Memorial reminds us, Memorial Day is one day out of many where we are meant to remember the price of freedom.