The schools are out, temperatures (and gas prices) are rising, and the beaches are crowded. And various country music stars have descended upon Baton Rouge. I think that makes it official — Summer 2015 is here. But if that anecdotal evidence is not enough, the calendar doesn’t lie — we all know that Memorial Day is the “official” start of every Summer.
Yesterday, as we were making a last minute run to stock up on essential Memorial Weekend supplies (nothing says, “Proud to be an American,” like pickles, chlorine, fireworks, and an extra loaf of bread), my eight-year old son and I started talking about a future trip to Washington, D.C. In discussing several must-see destinations, we talked about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After talking about it with him, and thinking about Memorial Day, it became apparent to me that the Tomb is an incredibly poignant reminder of exactly what we need to be thinking about (and being grateful for) this Memorial Day. And it dawned on me that folks were thinking about me too. Let me explain.
The Tomb of the Unknown rests in Arlington National Cemetery. The tomb sarcophagus (the impressive white marble structure we see presidents laying wreaths in front of) sits above the grave containing the remains of a soldier from World War I. Graves marked with three marble slabs sit to the West and mark the resting place for unknowns from World War II and Korea. The remains of the unknown soldier from Vietnam were ultimately exhumed and mitochondrial DNA testing allowed scientists to identify the remains as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, an airman shot down in Vietnam in 1972. It was decided that the crypt that contained the remains of the Vietnam unknown remain empty. Instead, the crypt inscription honors those missing in action from 1958 – 1975.
It’s impossible to visit the Tomb without being almost awestruck by the guards of the Tomb. The guards conduct a highly regimented ritual. The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps and waits 21 seconds before each turn. This symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed — the 21-gun salute. The Tomb Guards conduct this ritual twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And they have since 1937. Always.
The Tomb and its guards are an awesome reminder of what Memorial Day actually commemorates. The Tomb, of course, represents the ultimate sacrifice that soldiers have made for us throughout American history. And the Tomb Guards represent the commitment of our armed forces to be there to protect those ideals — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Always.
Soldiers who fought and died for American ideals, and for me, are, for the most part, “unknown” to me. I have known only a few soldiers. My dad and his twin brother both served in the Air Force. A good friend was a fighter pilot. My surrogate grandfather fought in World War I and I remember seeing his helmet and rifle in a closet as a young boy. But that’s pretty much it.
We don’t know the dead soldiers in the Tomb of the Unknown. And few Americans personally know soldiers who have died in combat. But they all knew us. They knew that we were, or more accurately — knew that we were going to be — Americans. And they knew us so well as Americans that that they were willing to pay the ultimate price with their lives so that we can enjoy American freedom and ideals.
I guess them knowing me, even though I didn’t know them, is enough. I guess it’s going to have to be. So today as I enjoy my fireworks and sandwich with pickles, I will remember that someone thought about me, even though they were completely unknown to me. And for that I am thankful.
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