Wednesday, April 26, 2017
I Visited America Today
I visited America this afternoon.
Have you ever been there?
It's really a special kind of place.
I was there with about two hundred* other Americans to honor 13 fellow citizens who had served in our military. Yet those veterans had died either homeless, or alone, or without any family members to claim their body.
This America today was populated by all sorts of people from various walks of life who didn't seem to care how wealthy, or powerful, or conservative, or liberal any of us are. We were assembled at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, nestled among rolling hills in a far western corner of Big D. A couple of local media outlets had broadcast the news that today, at 1pm, the National Cemetery was burying its largest group to date of "homeless" veterans.
Officially, the term is "unclaimed," and of the twenty veterans in today's ceremony, 13 died without any known family or next of kin.
Army Specialist Joseph David Dobson, 84
Army Private Ned Carlston King, 56
Army Specialist Dennis Wayne Moore, 63
Marine Private Edward Charles Gipson, 60
Marine Private Grant Wells, Jr., 63
Navy Veteran Glenn Allen Gatton, 65
Navy Ensign Patrick Michael Kelly, 62
Navy Veteran Daniel Ray McKinley, 46
Navy Veteran Michael Snyder, 58
Navy Veteran Elbert Louis Wilson, 79
Air Force Staff Sergeant William Brugemann Beeson, 86
Air Force Master Sergeant Bobby Ray Gleason, 71
Air Force Veteran Jerry G. Marshall, 81
The seven others honored today had at least one family member who accept the traditional folded flag, "from a grateful nation."
I saw a story about this on the Internet this morning, and told Mom I was going to attend. Without hesitation, she said she would as well. So we showed up about 15 minutes early, with me figuring a small yet respectable crowd of other grateful Americans would also be there. But when we turned the corner, driving past the gates into the cemetery, two snaking lines of backed-up traffic greeted us!
A burly groundskeeper on a golf cart glided by our car, and I rolled down the window. "We're here for the homeless veterans' service?" I asked, trying to clarify whether the big turn-out was for that service, and not maybe for some other veteran who may have simply had a big family and lots of friends.
"Yup," he confirmed, saying that there indeed was another burial at 1 o'clock, and they were trying to separate the traffic for each event. "I'm checking now to see what lane y'all need to be in." And he was off.
Sure enough, there were about ten cars for the other service, but there were dozens - with more arriving every second - for the "homeless" veterans' service. Another cemetery employee - obviously an office staffer who did not expect to be standing outside patrolling traffic today, at least considering her short skirt and short sleeves - gushed appreciatively at my opened car window that ours was the biggest crowd they'd ever had for a burial, and they were caught off-guard by all the attention their event had received.
In a normal year, our local National Cemetery buries about 40 unclaimed veterans, but not in as large a group as they did today.
We waited for about 10 minutes - past the ceremony's official start time - before beginning to snake our way around a loop and then down into the cemetery itself. There were easily fifty, sixty cars or more, and even more as we looked across a valley to where we could see a crowd already gathered with a color guard, flags and ribbons flapping in the stiff breeze.
We'd had rain this morning, and temperatures still hovered in the 60's, with a damp wind and no sunshine. Appropriately dreary for a funeral, I figured.
I finally found a place to park, and Mom and I walked quite a bit further to an open-air stone gazebo where the ceremony was taking place. We could hear the 21-gun salute and the playing of "Taps" as we walked, along with dozens of other people. Perhaps protocol should have made us stop stock still, in observance of these two hallmarks of a military funeral, but we all kept trudging along in the cold breeze.
Even once we reached the stone gazebo, none of us could hear what was going on, the wind was so loud. Crisp American flags lining the venue flapped, slapped, and crackled loudly in the wind. But it didn't seem to matter to anybody, except for a couple of children who didn't understand why everybody was just standing around in the blustery air. Yes, there were children in attendance. Old people, too. Whites, blacks, and several other shades of skin color. Well-dressed people, men and women in business suits, some wealthy-looking folks, and some that looked almost as destitute as those unclaimed veterans must have been.
One lady with a smart hairdo and a sleek black business suit had an infant and a toddler in tow, as if she'd left the office, run by day-care, and gotten her kids to witness this.
Plenty of people were brandishing smartphones, but nobody was talking or texting - they were taking photos and videos of the crowd, and the line of fully-suited military personnel in the gazebo, stiffly presenting those folded flags to the seven assembled family representatives.
Perhaps it was no small coincidence that at the end of the flag presentations, the wind died down significantly, enough for all of us to plainly hear a white-suited chaplain read some Scripture and give a brief benediction. If I was a journalist, I'd have made a note of the Scripture reference, since neither Mom nor I can now remember what it was! But even if few others in attendance were believers in the God of the Bible, we all heard a passage of the Gospel. And everybody stood reverently, whether they really appreciated it or not.
Indeed, the crowd's decorum was profound, maybe because decorum seems to be so missing in our modern life. Then, too, by that point, I think we'd all realized the obvious: What we were witnessing, and participating in, was a genuine slice of honest-to-goodness America. Not the political America, or the pop-culture America, or the squabbling America. Our individual political views didn't matter just then. Neither did anybody's sexual orientation, or skin color, or background, or criminal history, or occupation, or level of education, or home address, or what we drove... although quite a few very expensive vehicles lined both sides of the winding roadway.
I particularly noticed a tattered Subaru with ecology-themed bumperstickers parked there, alongside humongous pickup trucks and a brand-new white Mercedes sedan. One businessman in a serious suit, wearing a huge, expensive-looking wristwatch, claimed a silver Prius. One short, thin young man with dirty hair patiently crept through the crowds in a beat-up old Mitsubishi. An elderly woman looked on from her Ford minivan, apparently unable to walk the distance up to the gazebo.
Up at the gazebo, however, it was just us grateful citizens, and the moment, and the patriotism. No Democrats or Republicans, just a lot of people who had recently learned that 13 "homeless" veterans were being buried. Men who had at some point defended us and our country, and who may have made some bad choices in their lives, or maybe suffered the ill psychological affects of battle fatigue or PTSD. Maybe these men had intentionally separated themselves from their loved ones. Who knows? Yet right now, none of that dissonance really seemed to matter.
We all shared a common goal, those of us out there on this chilly, sunless afternoon. We were taking an unplanned detour in our day and pausing to commemorate something we could all value: Sacrifice for a cause. Maybe none of these guys died in combat, but apparently they were willing to at some point, otherwise they wouldn't have been in the military. Maybe the wars in which they fought were not originally conceived by the most altruistic of world leaders, or maybe they didn't end in a way many Americans welcomed. Maybe some of the folks in attendance today were mostly motivated by the "homeless" and "unclaimed" designations of these men, saddened by the apparent breakdown in familial bonds, and disturbed that people can die so alone.
Hey - It's not as if any of us left the cemetery and immediately went to sign-up as volunteers at a local homeless shelter, after all. But that wasn't the main purpose of attending today's ceremony, was it?
Mom and I attended - as I suspect just about everybody did - to honor not death, but life. Our lives as Americans; our corporate life as free - or mostly-free - residents of this planet, with all of its evils and ills. Our life with its freedoms safeguarded by people who volunteer to serve, even if our vast military industrial complex doesn't do as good of a job as it should to help make sure veterans don't end up homeless. Indeed, maybe even a little shame that the greatest country in the world doesn't do more to make sure our veterans don't die unknown and unrecognized.
This America that we visited this afternoon came into existence with our gathering, from all walks of life, at this one spot, for one purpose. And it likely dissipated just as we dispersed back into those various walks of life, as we all got in our cars, and drove away.
Funny how it takes thirteen people to die as unknowns for us to realize how much we share in common.
As much in common as those 13 fledgling colonies so long ago.
* A dubiously-written report by the Dallas Morning News estimated the crowd total at 100.