In elementary school, one of my favorite duties was flagpole duty. Each day, a small group of us youngsters made sure the American flag was hoisted up the pole in the morning and taken down and folded in the afternoon and in inclement weather. I remember crowding around the flagpole– wide-eyed and watching– as men and women dressed in their Army camouflage raised and lowered the flag. They showed us how to properly tie the rope so it wouldn’t slip and they reminded us of the importance of not letting the fabric of the flag touch the ground. We practiced folding the flag into a triangle and gently carried it back to the classroom to await the next day of flying proudly in front of the school.
I recognized much of the honor associated with the American flag at a young age, and I took pride in the fact that I was able to be a part of the daily task of caring for the flag. Once I started working with veterans and their families at the funeral home, however, I realized there is a much deeper kind of significance associated with our American flag. It wasn’t until I heard Taps and watched military honors rendered at a funeral that the importance of bearing witness to the sacrifices made by veterans really began to sink in.
It is difficult to fold a flag with military precision, and it is a moving experience to watch military details fold the flag and salute a casket. Notes of Taps ring out loud and clear amidst somber graveside settings. Movements are measured, shoes are shined, and jaws are steeled.
Crisp white and red stripes of the flag rest gently on top of a wooden casket. The stars are positioned above the heart. Gloved hands reach to pull the flag taut as it is folded into its triangular shape for presentation. An elderly widow sits in her wheelchair with her eyes closed. Her husband is being laid to rest, and some young Marines are folding his flag. We gently set the brakes on the wheels of the chair as we position her in the front row. The dementia has taken her far away from this moment, but they’ve brought her here today nonetheless. She’s snuggled into her blue knit outfit and she nods her head to the music at the funeral. Her eyes stay closed as the young lady with the military issued dress shoes steps forward. The soldier places the flag in the widow’s lap, and the daughter reaches out to steady it. With her other hand, the daughter wipes the tears away from her own eyes.
Years ago, this brave man served his country during WWII. I can only imagine the stacks of letters he and his bride sent back and forth to each other, and the way he held her when he finally made it home. Their young love branched into a family tree of children and grandchildren here today, many of whom have heard his war stories so many times they know them by heart.
Some of them, however, are too young to remember the stories of dark nights and fallen friends, of playing cards and Coca-Colas and those new-fangled radar systems. Time marches on, and it’s said that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. That such bittersweet memories of service to God and country can be so quickly forgotten paints a sad picture for our future.
Veterans Day reminds us of our duty–our responsibility–to preserve our heritage. We can re-count stories and help with school history projects and read books and watch movies about our nation’s heroes. We can talk about the news and discuss hard questions about the political challenges our world faces today. We can honor our veterans by lending our voices and our gifts to the discussion about PTSD and care for our soldiers. We can recite the Pledge of Allegiance and put our hands over our hearts when we sing The Star-Spangled Banner. Our small ways of showing honor add up to big ways of showing pride and thanksgiving for our country–our one nation under God.
This Veterans Day, pause to remember those who serve in wartime and in peacetime, and to celebrate the wonderful freedoms we enjoy.
For more ways to get involved this Veterans Day, check out these awesome ideas at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/lessons_plans/veterans-day/