Wednesday, May 31, 2006

My Memorial Day

This year I had resolved to attend one of the many Memorial day celebrations in our area. There were many to choose from including the celebration at Liberty Memorial downtown that would include the VFW Band and a parade of color guards. However, I chose to attend the much smaller ceremony in at the Leavenworth National Cemetary. I have three four family members buried there and a close friend of my mom along with her husband.

My youngest brother is currently in the hospital due to multiple complications from a surgery he had several weeks ago so I have been taking care of his three children, two boys, ages 13 and 12, and one girl, age 4. While I knew that the four year old would only be interested in all the "pretty" things, I thought the boys might like to see the military pagentry. I also wanted to take the opportunity to instill in them whatever little understanding I could of the importance of the day beyond our usual family get togethers and barbecues this time of year.

We woke up at 7 AM Monday morning to make the drive to the cemetary. My mom came over to the house and drove with us. We took Highway 45, the historical Lewis and Clark trail, over to 92 before crossing the bridge into Kansas. It was a beautiful morning with blue skies and about 78*F, though the humidity was high. I wish I had a camera so that you could see the Missouri/Kansas country side as I did on the drive. Though it was hazy from the humidity and heat, it was beautiful, rolling green hills in the distance with green leafy trees above the flat farm fields to the right and left of the highway near the river. Maybe I was just feeling a little too emotionally conscious at the moment, but the fields reminded me of the line from "America the Beautiful" "O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain,". If you could have seen what I did, you would know why Lewis and Clark (as well as several members of the corps) wrote in their journals from June 28 and July 4 as they traveled through the area that it was "one of the most beautiful places I ever saw in my life".

When we arrived at the cemetary, we had to park some distance from the ceremony at the chapel and wait for a shuttle. There were several veterans waiting for the shuttle along with their wives along with family members of those who were buried at Leavenworth National Cemetary. I had made a mental note and was prepared to shake hands and thank veterans personally this year, something I had done rarely in the past though I knew many. As we walked up to the shuttle area, I could see the men in their VFW and American Legion hats. The bus arrived immediately precluding any discussion as everyone made immediately for the seats. I made the kids stand back and wait for everyone else to get on. As we walked down the aisle, the vets all smiled and offered us each a "good morning" "how are you", etc as we passed. All of these vets were WWII and Korean War veterans. I was happy to respond and to note that the boys were not complete heathens, but also responded politely.

A woman about my mom's age, walking with a cane and her daughter, both wearing "USA" T-shirts, hats and pins arrived late to the shuttle as we were being seated. The boys had each taken an empty bench for themselves, leaving only two open seats on different benches, so I poked the eldest nephew in the arm and pointed to the ladies so he would give up his seat.

Once we were there, we stood at the left of the stage near the salute battery and heard several speakers noted in the Leavenworth times (registration required).

“Bravery is not being unafraid,” said Ernie Cooper, state commander of the American Legion of Kansas. “Brave people are those who are afraid to put themselves in harm’s way and do it anyway.”

I believe there were over 15 wreaths laid that day from many organizations. Besides the numerous VFW and American Legion posts, there were several motorcycle organization including the American Legion Riders who often join the Patriot Guard to honor fallen soldiers and protect their families from protesters. There were women vets as well, each pair of presenters saluted the wreaths they laid. I noted that the VFW and American Legion vets would salute, then smartly turn and salute the flags of the color guard before returning to their places. One in particular caught my eye as he did a specific route that took him by the color guard (made up of all the branches of the services) and held the salute until he had completely passed. After seeing several groups salute, the boys thought they should salute, too.

Unfortunately, by the end of the ceremony, the boys and my niece were getting a little restless and started picking at each other. When they started playing taps I had everyone stand up and the boys started pushing at each other. I finally turned around and gave them the "look". They both looked around and noted people saluting and put their hands over their hearts.
(Leavenworth Times) However, before I could turn back to face the salute battery, Taps had ended and the commander of the battery gave the first order to fire. As the first round went off, I ducked my head as I slewed around to face the cannons. Now I know how the newly returned vets feel when they hear loud bangs. After that, facing the battery and watching the commands being given, it was not so startling. Three cannon fired seven shots each with precision, the shots echoing across the rolling hills of the cemetary like rolling thunder.

My niece insisted that I hold my hands over her ears while they fired. When it was over, the color guard retired the colors and the ceremony broke up. The 12 year old wanted to go over to the cannon and look at it. The oldest was having a pouty moment because I had given him the "look" during the ceremony and decided he was going to sit on the curb while we looked. Children rarely understand "cutting your nose off to spite your face". A young woman, Spc. Vineyard, was very kind and took the time to explain things about the cannon to my nephew. It was a 75mm Howitzer "Mountain Gun". She explained that it was heavily used during WWII and Korea. My nephew noted the odd smell that was still lingering and Spc. Vineyard explained that it was the sulfur inside the shells and proceeded to show him an unused round (blank). She saw that he kept looking at the cannon and told him he could touch it. He was very excited. I thanked Spc Vineyard as the squad leader came over and directed the soldiers to start "policing up the ammunition". My oldest nephew finally joined us and wanted to talk to her, but we needed to get going to the gravesites we were going to visit. He was very disappointed and said he wanted to talk to her because "she was very pretty".

I want to say a big "thank you" to her again for being so patient and answering all of his questions. She was also very knowledgable, polite and professional; an excellent representative of the US Army and a fine example of the young men and women we are fortunate to have serving.

We walked along the headstones near the chapel on the way to our first desitination and I pointed out the different markers, some with the words "Sp Am War", "Unknown" and other interesting information. We visted the gravesite of Charles and Rosa Lee Winters. Rosa Lee was an elderly lady my mom had been very fond of. Her husband had proceeded her by nearly twenty years and they now shared a grave at Leavenworth. Charles had been a POW during WWII. Then we went to the newest section where my Uncle Donald was buried last year. It was sad to say that there were over 80 new graves and a line of sites that were being prepared for new internments. Most of these were WWII and Korean War Vets with a few new Vietnam Vets. I noted two headstones that listed the men as "Persian Gulf" (Gulf WarI; Desert Storm). The men were barely in their early thirties when they died. One of the headstones read, "Friend and beloved husband; Scouts Out". Many headstones listed medals received such as "PH" (Purple Heart), BSM (bronze star medal) and many others. One medal that I could not remember the designation for was marked "OLC" on the headstone. I presumed it was a commendation of some sort, but had no clue if that was correct. (If anyone knows what "OLC" on a military headstone means, please leave a comment).

We went on to visit by Great Uncle Fred and his wife Melba's grave; then to my grandfather's brother, Uncle Leon, who got permission and began to serve in the Navy on the same ship as my grandfather had during the war. The cemetary was very busy. I don't think anyone can say they are "glad" that it was so busy with family members and friends, but it did warm my heart to see how many families and friends had come to pay their respects. As we walked along the headstones and I read some of the information when the boys asked, "what does this mean?", I noted that some of the flowers and flags had fallen over, so, as I read I put them back in place. The boys and my niece must have decided that it would be a good thing to do so they followed suit. My niece was four and couldn't push some of the flower holders back into the ground so I had her help me when I did it.

While we were walking along looking at the headstones, the sky turned an ominous grey and sprinkles began to fall so I herded the children back into the car. We had 20 minutes to make it to our next destination: Fort Leavenworth Cemetary, to hear General Petraeus speak and, if the wheather cooperated, look at some historical monuments on the fort proper.

Getting on the fort was an experience all by itself.

To be continued...

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