I didn’t take any pictures at the Changing of the Guard Ceremony.
I have reached the point where I can’t even watch the traditional Memorial Day Laying of the Wreath ceremony anymore because I cannot take the clicking of the shutters, the whirring of the film (or whatever) and all that damn electronic beeping and buzzing during the ceremony. It’s not like there aren’t thousands upon thousands of pictures of the Ceremony out there already, so any picture that I might have taken would have been just one of millions – if not billions – of the same picture that you can see pretty much anywhere on the Interwebs. Scientists say that we are taking so many pictures that we fail to imprint and recall the events of which we are taking pictures. We might as well not even go to them. So when I found myself at the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, I just left my camera on the bus and turned my phone off.
We actually arrived about 45 minutes early, and since I had the spare time, I went on up to the Tomb of the Unknowns. There I found that as the sun was just beginning to rise over the Nation, there were just two living people there – me, and a Guard from the 3rd Infantry Regiment. He walked his post, I watched.
For nearly twenty minutes it was just him and me. I stood holding onto the rail because age and infirmity are catching up with me and I was afraid to fall down, as he took twenty-one steps in a precise military bearing each way, stopping to face the tomb at each end, and then repeating the move.
It’s surprisingly unquiet. Washington D.C. buzzes with action and traffic, giant airliners whine overhead every minute. Leaf blowers move leaves off of the sidewalks and graves, while Busses and cars slam doors or start engines. But after a few moments, all of that cacophony faded into the background and all I could really hear was the sound of the Guard clicking his heels and shifting his rifle.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
There are other things to see here, but I could not bear to move away. For an hour I stood and watched the guard and later the Changing of the Guard Ceremony. Others came and went, cameras whirred and buzzed and clicked.
When it was all done, I hugged two other Vets who also had tears in their eyes as they contemplated the meaning of Arlington and the beauty, simplicity and precision of the Changing of the Guard and two Army Wreath Ceremonies.
That twenty minutes with just a Soldier at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and myself will always be among the most precious moments of my life.
And I don’t need pictures of it. It is imprinted forever on my soul.
The CV Honor Flight is about WWII Vets and getting them to see the WWII Memorial which opened in 2004, almost sixty years after the end of the World War. Each Veteran has a Guardian, a person who has been trained to take care of the average-age-of-90 vets who have all the issues of advanced age plus in many cases the wounds that never healed correctly or fully. Many of these Guardians are Vets themselves, and they too have their stories.
Bill Goodreau is a gregarious and friendly personality, who loves this country and those who have served her. He is a Vietnam Vet, having served in Country during the latter years of the War as a part of the Air Cavalry. He has made other Central Valley Honor Flights as a Guardian, but now he has been promoted to Bus Captain, responsible for making sure that the Blue Bus folks get on and off safely and back to the bus on time to get wherever they are going next.
After the visit to the WWII Memorial and the Navy Memorial, the busses make their way to the Vietnam and Korean Memorials. Because of the roughness of the terrain and the distance involved, many of the WWII Vets are tired and elect not to make the nearly hour long walk. Because of that, even though he had brought Vets here as a Guardian, Bill had never seen the Wall that memorializes the more than 58,000 of his brothers who died in Vietnam. Some of them died right next to Bill, when a shell hit the post he was manning with new men whom he had not even had time to introduce himself to yet. Before they ever shook hands or said, “Where are you from?” they were gone.
I watched Bill stand before the three-soldier memorial, which was added after the Memorial opened in an attempt to bring some “traditional memorial” pieces to the place, which memorializes the one war in our history that was anything but “traditional.” He stared at the three men portrayed for quite some time, a slight smile on his face, but otherwise silent until he was ready to go, when he said to his wife, “That’s a flak jacket,” as he pointed to the center Soldier.
I stayed behind him as he entered the Wall proper, knowing that he had never set foot here on this hallowed ground before. At first, he looked at the panels and even some of the names. His wife asked him if he knew any of the names of the men he had been around who died, which is when he told us that no, he couldn’t. In fact, some of them had died before he ever even knew their names. As he reached the point where the names reached three or so feet high, his left arm began to trail along the surface of the wall. He slowed down, looking forward only enough to not trip as he walked.
He came to a stop as he reached the bottom point where the wall begins to slope up. He faced the highly reflective surface of the Memorial, reached his hand out and touched the stone. His reflection looked back at him across the years and after a moment, he wiped away his tears. For a few moments it didn’t matter that he could remember no names, only faces and voices that he could alone could hear at that moment, as they whispered to him.
When he regained his composure, I stepped up to him and put my hand on his shoulder. He looked at me with moist and reddened eyes and said, “We are keeping faith.”
After a moment of silence he seemed to remind himself that he had others to care for and watch. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he said softly. “But we kept faith.”
He has spent his years looking over others. For a short moment today he returned to those who had also looked over him. And reminded himself and them that keeping faith will never end. As long as a Vietnam Vet remains, they will come here, some for the first time and say their prayers and greetings to Comrades with whom they keep faith.
Bill made his way up the hill and returned to being a Bus Captain overseeing Guardians and WWII Vets who were brought here to receive their nations thanks.
Keeping Faith is done by each succeeding generation in its own way, and it was my privilege to share that moment with a Vietnam Vet on a warm October day, 3000 miles from home, and two generations after Bill’s war ended.
Yes, there are WWII Vets that need to be here to see their Memorial. But supporting CV Honor Flight is even about all of our Vets Keeping Faith. Please donate to CENTRAL VALLEY HONOR FLIGHT. Every dollar helps.