I approached the stone structure on a beautiful crisp clear October day. Fallen leaves crushed beneath my feet and the air had exactly the right amount of gentle breeze blended with a cool warmth that defines early fall in Washington, D.C.
Before me stood a stone structure built to memorialize those courageous men who stormed the beaches of Normandy, crawled through the sand at Iowa Jima and drug themselves along the Bataan death march. As I stared at the imposing World War II monument formed into a circle marking the Atlanta and Pacific sides, I pictured those brave Americans that risked everything to keep our country free from Communism. I thought of the father-in-law that I never met and how he must have felt as the Navy Cross was pinned to his chest. I thought of the many times my own dad recalled sitting in his gunnery position of the bull turret bomber and the fear he felt every time his plane landed, because he was locked into a rounded pimple attached to the bottom of the plane.
My daydream was interrupted by the loud sounds of engines and air brakes as five huge buses pulled into the parking lot behind me. As I turned to look, I saw those men. The ones I had just been imagining were departing from their chariots. Here they were! Those Americans that gave it all–the Greatest Generation. I watched as they slowly stepped off the buses blinking their eyes in the bright sunlight as wheelchairs were hurried to their sides. After being secured in their chairs, they were pushed by sons or daughters and many by their own grandkids to the entrance of the great monument.
This was a once in a lifetime moment. And as we all knew, spectators and veterans alike, this would be the only journey they would every make to their monument.
Most of them were wearing matching brightly colored t-shirts emblazoned with their states and with a small logo of the generous businesses that had sponsored their trip. Honor Flight had organized the trips including the flights and bus trips for the veterans. Each wore around his neck a lanyard announcing his branch of military service and each name was typed neatly on a card dangling on their chests. A few of them wore their original uniforms, proud to be soldiers and equally proud to be able to still wear it.
I followed them to the sidewalk that would carry them inside the doors of the great monument. Along either side veterans from Vietnam, Korea, and the Gulf wars had come to show their respects. As each wheelchair carried its valuable treasure forward, the crowds cheered and chanted “Hip, Hip, Hooray!” Hundreds of hands where outstretched hoping to be grasped by the wrinkled and shaking hands reaching from the chairs. I was reminded that this is how the president enters the House Chamber before the State of the Union speech. But these spectators wanted much more than to shake the hand of a president. They want to shake the hand of a hero. And as each hand was touched one could hear “Thank you for your service” being repeated over and over again as the wheelchairs continued to move toward their monument. Hugs were exchanged and tears were many. I stood in silence watching and trying to hear over the loud applause and occasional announcements of “This is George Wilmington, he is a survivor of Pearl Harbor.” More applause. “This is Walter Musgrove, he stormed the beaches at Normandy.” Applause again.
The entrance grew nearer. As the crowd opened up to let our heroes through, the doorway was revealed awkwardly hosting an iron gate with a sign stating, “The Park Is Closed”. A uniformed ranger stood at his post greeting these great Americans as best he could while delivering the bad news. The confused faces wrinkled even more and some turned to their loved ones for an explanation.
The ominous gate, the size of a bicycle rack, was blocking the entrance to the park, their park. The one they had purchased with their own donations, the one they had earned with the blood of their brothers and the sacrifices of their lives. A gate? Really, a gate? These men had faced Kamikaze pilots, bombs at Pearl Harbor and man-eating sharks for those that survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. A gate was not going to keep them out and the veterans from Vietnam, Korean and the Gulf wars were there to make sure of it. The gate was handily moved aside and the wheelchairs entered their sanctuary.
I followed them inside as they marveled at the beauty of the monument. Even though the fountains did not flow and the lights were not illuminated, they soaked up this moment to carry with them until their final day. I watched as they assembled themselves into neat rows beneath the stone pillar engraved with their state’s name. The family members left them to move to the side. This was their moment, this was their monument, and this was their country. A bugler played Taps and they sat straight at attention in their chairs each holding a quivering arm in a perfect salute until the last note.
Pictures were snapped and more handshakes ensued. Many of the representatives had come down from the hill to greet their heroes and this was the moment for pictures. I knew when I saw them getting snapped that the photo was not for the joy of the veteran, but would instead be a much coveted treasure to be placed into frames that would soon be sitting in offices on the hill.
I wish I could say that this beautiful day although shadowed by a government at war with itself was as crisp and clear at the autumn air that day, but I would not be telling the entire story.
When the veterans from the other wars, Korea, Vietnam, and The Gulf wars assembled inside the WWII monument, holding flags and cheering about this great country, several police officer gathered on the hill just beyond the makeshift bicycle gates erected to keep them out. I was told by my friend with Honor Flight that one of the officers told her that they were planning to “throw the veterans out”. There could be no rallies, or protests at this monument.
Another sad moment happened while the soldiers were being greeted by their elected officials. A woman on a cell phone, standing near the vets and their representatives was screaming at the person on the other end that she could not believe the nerve of these Republicans. “They were so full of S*%t!” said she. They had come down here to see the veterans. I wondered where she would have liked for them to be on this beautiful Saturday. On the golf course? At home watching College Football? She continued to yell at an intolerable volume ruining what should have been a wonderful moment for the veterans.
I saw people on bicycles, yelling at those holding American flags that this shutdown was “the Tea Party’s fault”. I also saw many arguments break out about who was right and who was wrong regarding the closing of the parks. And in the noise of the blaming and name calling, an occasional voice would whisper into their ear of a chaperone, “Where is the bathroom?” The answer was always the same: CLOSED. These war veterans, these heroes, these of the Greatest Generation could not even relieve themselves in the very restrooms they had paid for with their own donations.
The day after I left, my Honor Flight friend sent me a picture of a flatbed truck hauling in a dozen port-a-potties. Don’s Johns had brought them for the veterans to be placed at the WWII Memorial–but the park ranger refused to allow them to be set up. My friend insisted that the land belonged to the American people and she quickly pointed out a wonderful grassy spot that was used for overflow parking. Again, the ranger refused to allow the portable johns to be placed for the veterans. My friend’s eyes slowly looked toward the Washington monument standing on the mall. She tells me that over 150 port-a-potties were neatly lined up ready for the Immigration/Amnesty protest rally. That group was allowed to assemble and hold a rally with the comfort of portable toilets. But our veterans, our warriors, our heroes would not be given the same type of comfort and consideration.
I wish I could say that we are just like that generation of patriots, but one last thing really spoke to me about how far we as Americans have drifted from this Greatest Generation. One of the furloughed security guards told me that while the government is on shutdown, the auto mechanics organization that takes care of all the government vehicles is closed. “There is no one there to change a flat tire,” he said. He pointed to the car provided to him by the government and said that he had gotten a flat tire the day after the shutdown and that there had been no one to call. When I asked what he did, he replied, “Well, I actually had to change my own tire and now I don’t even have spare. What will I do if I get another flat tire?” Well, I guess he will do what I would have to do–change it myself. I wonder if I were given a free car, would I complain about having to change my own tire? Then I looked at these men and remembered what they had been through. They ran out of the U boats at Normandy, knowing that the first few would be shot, allowing those following to hopefully make it to the beaches. At Iwo Jima 6,891 were killed and 18,070 were wounded. The sixty-mile journey known as The Bataan Death March claimed the lives of 5,200 American to disease, exposure to the blazing sun, lack of food, and lack of water. Many prisoners were bayoneted, shot, beheaded or just left to die on the side of the road. One survivor reported, “A Japanese soldier took my canteen, gave the water to a horse, and threw the canteen away.”
I will not soon forget the wrinkled faces of the men that saved my country for my children and me. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, they ran to the enlistment offices. They left schools, wives, families and businesses. Saving this country from Socialism and Communism was their business. They fought bravely and without complaint. And when they got home, they picked up their lives where they left off. They went back to college and they started their families. Their children became known as the Baby Boomers. I am one of those Boomers born to a soldier from WWII. I am proud to be an American and so grateful for their service. They went to war without promise of victory, they suffered without complaint and they returned home to build the greatest country the world has ever known. Free from tyranny, free from dictators, free from government overreach.
I cannot speak for those that share this and future decades with me, but I can promise that the next time I have to change my own tire, I will gratefully do it because I live in a country bought with the blood of men who said, “I will go; send me.”
Our Greatest Generation is dying—and yet I look around and I see angry women on cell phones condemning those trying desperately to hang on to our freedoms. I see police guards ready to pounce on men and women who wore our uniform and came home to be spat upon by Americans. I see gates and fences trying to keep us out of our own property. I want to be part of the generation that knew there is something greater than ourselves. America is the only country where people will get on a raft to get here and defect under threat of death to stay here. I want to preserve the America we once were, but the fight is hard and the battle may be long. There are no guarantees that we will win. But like those sweet men I wheelchairs, “I will go; send me.”