Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our Solemn Obligation

Last October, during Parent's Weekend at George Washington University, my family had occasion to visit the World War Two Memorial on the National Mall. The memorial was dedicated in May of 2004 and commemorates the 16 million who served, the over 400,00 who died, and all who supported the war effort from home.

No sooner had we arrived than a tour bus from Texas pulled into the parking area. Onboard were a group of WW2 veterans, some of whom disembarked from the bus under their own steam, many others with the assistance of their caregivers. Walkers and wheelchairs were unloaded and distributed.

Twenty-four bronze bas-relief panels flank the north and south ceremonial entrance of the memorial, with walkways gradually descending into the inner oval with its pool and fountains. I watched an elderly gentleman with a dark blue Navy Veteran cap, his chair being wheeled down the entryway. He asked to pause at each panel--on the south side depicting the Pacific theater of war--and gazed intently, describing to his caregiver what each scene portrayed, from Pearl Harbor to enlistment to shipbuilding to the Navy in action to jungle warfare.

Walking a few paces behind, I listened intently, and drawing nearer, introduced myself, shaking the man's outstretched hand. He said that he had piloted an amphibious landing craft during the war, delivering Marines onto islands held by the Japanese. He said that it was his honor and privilege to visit the memorial. He was grateful for this tribute to his generation.

As he approached the last two panels, one depicting an impromtu battlefield burial and the next a celebration of VJ Day, I noticed that he was silently weeping and wiping his eyes with his handkerchief.

I accompanied him further on and watched as he looked up and read aloud a quote from Admiral Nimitz carved into the stonework:

They fought together as brothers-in-arms. They died together and now they sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation.

I asked if I might take his photograph. He graciously agreed and turned his wheelchair to face the camera. And I thought how much this man reminded me of my own father.

Jack Heald served as an officer aboard the USS Converse from November, 1942 to January, 1944. His destroyer squadron won a Presidential Unit Citation for "extraordinary heroism" during the Solomon Islands campaign. Among other harrowing episodes, his ship was struck amidships by a torpedo that failed to detonate. Years later, his youngest son, then a boy, opened a closet at home where his father kept his dress uniform and stared up in awe.

Walking alongside that elderly Navy veteran, I regretted that my father did not live to see the World War Two Memorial. Dad never talked much about his war experience. I encouraged him to write it down but he never did. In an effort to downsize and clean-up before she moved to retirement housing, my mother threw away the letters my father had sent to her while he was in the service. Even now, she regrets having done so.

One summer evening, driving home from a USS Converse reunion in Bath in 1989, my father began to talk. But mostly about how the ships themselves had changed over the years, about how much more spacious the accommodations were onboard a modern destroyer than the "tin cans" he and his fellow veterans were crammed into, with barely an inch of steel separating them from a torpedo and the watery depths.

Every day the ranks of my father and mother's generation--many have called it the "greatest generation"-- are diminishing. As a hospice chaplain, I am keenly aware of their passing. We owe this generation our love and respect, just as we do all people, both the living and the dead. But this generation is passing away now, before our very eyes. And soon there will be none left. They carry away with them the many-faceted singular stories of their lives, each story precious, each life unique and irreplaceable.

These men and women deserve our heartfelt thanks and our attentive, listening presence. Many of them sincerely feel that they have nothing special to share, nothing that anyone else would want to hear, nothing of value to pass onto in the next generation. They are mistaken. We owe it to them to pay them homage, to honor their legacy, and to pass their stories and memories along to the next generation. They are each one of them heros, each one utterly ordinary and divine.

This is much more than an obligation. It is our solemn honor and privilege.

(DSH Photo: US Navy Veteran at the World War Two Memorial, Washington, D.C, 2008)

1 comment:

Geoff said...

Great post, David. Thank you.