This Sunday, I preached a “sermon-in-dialog” with Roy Wedge, a member of the UU Fellowship of Midland, a Vietnam era Air Force Veteran, and a singer/songwriter. Below is the final section of that sermon, written and preached by myself, telling the story of the last time I visited the National War Memorials in Washington DC.
And yet, Memorial Day really is not about the soldiers who are still among us. It is about those who never came home, and those who came home so physically and spiritually wounded that they found they could no longer live.
One of the most profound experiences of my life happened this year, during the time that I have been your minister at the UU Fellowship of Midland. A few of you might remember that I was gone for a week back in February. I went Ft. Meade Maryland to take a course titled “Combat Lifesaver”… the certification to be the person on the battlefield who can keep someone alive until the Medic arrives. I went on that course with a group of young soldiers and one ROTC Cadet… many of whom had never been out of Michigan, much less to our Nation’s capitol.
So, one evening after the training was over, I bundled them all into a van and drove them to Washington DC. First, during the fading daylight, I drove them around DC… I showed them the US Capitol, and the Washington Monument. We saw the White House, and the Smithsonian, and the Lincoln Memorial, and I also took them to Ft. McNair and showed them the National War College and the place where the Lincoln Assassination conspirators met their end. It was a good time for all, with these young soldiers laughing and joking.
Then, with the daylight gone, and a light snow falling around us, I parked the van. We all got out, and we walked, still laughing and joking, towards the far end of the National Mall. We were entering the National War Memorial Park.
We took a photo at the outside of the park, still laughing and joking… and then we entered into the WWII Memorial. A silence descended upon these young soldiers, as they read the plaques. The young ROTC Cadet, who would soon after commission and possibly be leaving to command soldiers in Afghanistan, stood for awhile in the center of the Memorial, in silence. The other soldiers migrated to the back of the Memorial… where they gathered around a wall that was covered in golden stars…over 400 stars… each representing one thousand Americans who had died in WWII.
The young ROTC Cadet said to me, and to the other young soldiers, “Just think Chaplain, for our wars there would only be six or seven stars… Kinda makes you think, huh?”
I gave a kind of rolling liturgy of the meanings of some of the parts of the memorial. These young soldiers, none of them having yet been in combat, knew they were on holy ground. We found the column with the word “Michigan” etched onto it, and each of the soldiers touched it, like touching a sacred relic. The snow continued to fall.
In the darkness we walked past that memorial, shaking in the cold. But none of the soldiers ran, or joked. We walked in silence, as I guided them down a small path, toward something dimly seen in the distance…
What was dimly seen was a long, polished black wall. Just that, a wall of black marble. It stretches, and in an optical illusion seems much smaller than it is, from a distance. Yet when you are up close, and see the seemingly endless names etched along that wall, when you are at its center, it seems to tower over you. In silence, my young soldiers, facing deployment in their own unpopular war, touched that wall.
There were a few others who had come out by that time, the snow had lifted a little. I don’t know if it was because of the haircuts or what, but those that were around us seemed to know… these were soldiers going off to war, communing with the memory of those who had gone before… almost as if they were asking for guidance and wisdom. One man stood at the exit of the memorial, and as we left said to me, “Are you all soldiers?”… I replied that these young men were… I was just their Chaplain.
“Thank you for your service”, he said… and one of my soldiers whispered, “No, thank them,” and pointed back to the wall.
We continued the ritual, through the eerie realism of the Korean War memorial, and the nearly forgotten disrepair of the WWI memorial. We stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and watched the snowfall. As I was sitting with the young ROTC Cadet on those steps, we had a quiet conversation on what it meant to lead soldiers in combat… how it was not his job to “bring them home”, but to make sure that if the soldiers he would command died, they did not die for nothing. His job, as an officer, was to make sure that their deaths had meaning.
That is the real point of Memorial Day. It began as “Decoration Day”, the day to decorate the graves of all of those who died in the Civil War, a War our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors not only believed in, but fought and died in. At Arlington National Cemetery, the Civil War graves do not show what denomination someone was, but many of those buried there were Unitarians or Universalists. As I walked those Arlington Hills in 2009, I did take pictures of hundreds of graves, each carrying the UU Chalice at the top of the headstone. Corporals and Colonels, Men and Women, Ministers and Lay Members, all who served our nation and lie buried in the fields of Arlington, fields that once belonged to Robert E. Lee. Nowhere in the world are there more flaming chalices in one place than at Arlington National Cemetery.
Memorial Day should not, should never glorify war. What glory there is in war is often only found in its memory, not its reality. No, Memorial Day is about remembering the reality. It is about remembering the cost, the price, and the horror of war so that it is not the first thing we allow our politicians to turn to. It is so that we remember that war is not fought by some faceless automaton soldiers, but by young kids, just like those that walked the Memorials with me in the snow one February night.
A few weeks after we walked those memorials, those soldiers all found out the dates, about a year from now, when they will be going to Afghanistan… and the young Cadet will likely be going much sooner.
For those of us who believe in Peace, who hope for Peace, who pray for Peace, and who work for Peace… there should be no more sacred day in our calendar than Memorial Day. The day to remember the cost of war, and to never, never, never allow that cost to be forgotten.
Yours in Faith,