I came across this essay and thought it was a beautiful Memorial Day tribute. I hope you enjoy it.
I wrote this a while after I got home from Iraq, and I post it every year. Happy Memorial Day.
You’ve seen them. The old guys in the parades. They march- or shuffle- along, parts of uniforms hanging, bits of ribbons and old medals tarnished black with the years pinned on shirts and jackets unevenly, smiling and waving as they pass. They wear odd, envelope-shaped hats, often covered with mystifying pins, which say things like, “American Legion,” and “Veterans of Foreign Wars.” They’re not even close to being in step, even though one old guy, ramrod straight, is calling a raspy cadence. As they pass, a few stand, one or two older folks even remove hats. Their old friends who can no longer march,
line the streets, and even those in wheelchairs will try to stand, or at least sit a bit straighter as the flag passes. Sometimes they salute.
These men. Old. Overweight. Too thin. Thick glasses. Halting gaits of old men. The guys in front wobbling a bit under the weight of the flags they carry. These are THEM. A few folks will clap a little as they pass, or call out the name of a friend, father or grandfather in the ranks.
These men are the reason we are here. They fought on D-Day, they were at Iwo Jima. They froze in Korea, sweated in the jungles of Viet Nam. They liberated Kuwait, slugged across the Balkans, ran the Mogadishu Mile and drove endless miles around and around Baghdad.
They saw the horror, these were the men who liberated the concentration camps, and destroyed the Iraqi torture cells. They saw friends closer than brothers bleed and die, and they know what it is to kill.... Oh yes. They killed. These fat old men in the strange hats. Some were wounded. Some haven’t slept through the night in more than fifty years. A sound, a smell can bring it all back instantly, even now. As they pass, some folks may clap a little. Rarely will people stand; more rare is the spectator who will remove his hat. Why? Because these are our Dads, our Grandpas, our friends. Nowadays, even our Moms, Grandmas & Aunts. We know them. They put on our band-aids and made our lunches. Taught us to throw and catch. Taught us to hunt, gave us our first beers, our families and friends. Stand? Salute? Take off my hat?
Yes. Above all, yes. Stand. Salute. Take off your hat!
- Because this old man who taught you about cars once lay in a shallow hole on a beach while the world came apart around him. This kid who used to deliver your newspaper still can’t walk on a sandy beach without his hands shaking. This woman calling your name at the doctor’s office has plugged a bullet hole with a tampon. The guy who makes your morning coffee once called in a “danger close” airstrike on his own position. And mostly, because on Memorial Day, these people are not marching for themselves. Each of them marches in the place and memory of friends and brothers who will never march anywhere again. Stand for them… take off your hat... not for the people passing by, but for the endless stream of memories of the dead and gone that each of those people really represents… these are the lucky ones. They came home. They lived. They got to know you. They pass by you for beloved comrades who didn’t. On Monday, as the Old Guard passes by, rise. Take off your hat. Applaud. Cheer. If you get a chance, look them in the eye and say a simple “Thank you,” or, "Welcome home." Some of these people have never had that experience. And as you go off to your barbecues and parties and days at the lake, remember what some people have done and where they have been to enable us to enjoy the many blessings of our nation and freedom. And, if you think of it, pause for a moment, and thank God... for these old men in funny hats.
Republished with permission of the author, Kurt Vonderheyde