Beaufort National Cemetery

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Thank You For Your Service

Of course it goes well beyond this hallowed site. The human race has invested blood and treasure measured in the billions in an attempt to assure its security. In some cases – such as ours – freedom was the return on that effort. In others, an increased and increasing level of misery and despair.

Days of remembrance, such as this Veteran’s Day in the United States, are pasted all over the global calendar, setting aside an annual slice of time to recall and consider the sacrifices made so that we can recall and consider. In my immediate family those thoughts extend to my grandfather, my mother, my uncle, my son, and in all due modesty, me.  And in my extended family more people have served than I’ve ever come to know or know about. Most of us returned home with all out physical parts intact.  I can’t really speak for our other essential elements of our being – mind and spirit – but if my personal experiences are any measure the enemies we all battled  on the killing fields are vastly outnumbered by the demons we fought (and fight) that followed us home.

Wars never really end. It’s tragic so few leaders manage to grasp a working understanding of that simple fact. Some of ours have: Washington. Lincoln. Roosevelt. And most certainly Eisenhower and Kennedy. Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt escaped the immediate physical pain we have become so ready to inflict on the battlefield, but not the demons those fields release. Never.

And, lest we forget, as it’s written somewhere, those also serve who stand and wait. We don’t have days set aside to honor them. Our leaders occasionally give speeches to address, in passing, their courage and some of our policies recognize the part they played to support their warrior, but rarely is it mentioned that for every one of the stones that planted in our memorial cemeteries there are probably dozens of survivors who mourn the loss of the person lying below. And grief, like war, never really ends.

I captured the image depicted here some months past. In my travels I visit cemeteries all over the country. I read the inscriptions the families have etched on the face of the markers and sometimes marvel at the monuments that some of the residents or their associates have erected in their own memory. You don’t find those sorts of self-centered edifices in a military cemetery.  There are lots of very good reasons for that but one certainly is that most of these warriors never lived very long. Most of them were veritable children. Children that we  sacrificed for the greater good.  That’s about what I was feeling when I sat in this cemetery on the day I photographed it. I was grateful for the souls those stones represented. Not all of them died in combat – but they could have had the dice rolled maybe once more in their direction instead of toward the warrior standing next to them.  There are many ways to serve. And there are many ways to die.

I always think of my son on occasions like this. He is no longer in service. He made it through not one but two wars and found his way back into workaday society. He escaped the perils of battle when his commander-in-chief , who together with his principal advisors had never personally experienced the hell of war, sent him on these vainglorious missions. Humans forgive, but forgetting is another thing.

Remembering doesn’t seem to have had any effect on our affinity to engage in mortal combat as a solution to our presumed feelings of national insecurity. But at the very least it does seem to have resulted in our planting fewer of these stones (for our side anyway) than did our forebears. They engaged in conflicts that counted their service victims in the hundreds of thousands. The war I lent my hand to accounted for them in the tens of thousands. And my son’s? In the thousands. The question is, does this continuing decline in combat losses represent an increasing willingness to seek less bloodthirsty implements of negotiation for maintaining the peace, or is it simply a reflection of an increasing efficiency in deploying the tools of death? The cynic in me leans toward the latter as the answer but deep down in my psyche I’m really, really hoping it’s the former.

I’ll never run out of cemeteries to visit. As much as I despise the reason that many of the residents are victims of political chicanery of the vilest order (doesn’t sound as good as courageous warriors who gave their all in defense of your freedoms does it?) as long as I remember them and pay them homage they will not have died in vain. I owe them that much. We all do. We who also served.

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