Memorial Day: Greet them ever with grateful hearts

My best wishes this Memorial Day to everyone who has served our country, whose family and friends have served our country, or who is simply grateful to all those who have served. Below, I’m republishing a piece I wrote last year about this annual day of remembrance. Wherever you are, whatever your politics, I hope you’ll find a way today to remember our fallen soldiers.

The train trip from Brussels lasted two hours, with a change at Liege. On most days, Welkenraedt was a sign post you blinked past on the way to attractions in Germany: Cologne, Monschau, the only Wal-Mart for 100 miles. On this Memorial Day, it was a place to stop.

A few dozen miles to the south lay the northernmost bulge from Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive in 1944. A couple of miles to the north, in Henri-Chapelle, lie the remains of 7,992 American soldiers who never made it out of Belgium.

A couple of miles was more than my wife and I had anticipated. A young woman sat behind the ticket window. Was there, we asked her in the mangled French of two recent arrivals, a bus to the cemetery? Perhaps a taxi?

You are Americains?

Oui, oui. (“Yes” twice, in the manner of so many who speak few foreign words with confidence.)

She turned, made a phone call, hung up, told us to wait.

Presently, a man in work clothes appeared and waved us over. (Americains are an easy mark in Welkenraedt.)

We slid onto the bench of his white pickup truck for a ride with a little conversation in French, a little bit of English and a lot of silence. We understood enough to learn that this man was a gardener at the cemetery, and that part of his job was to drive to town to pick up any American visitors.

We arrived, parked, entered the cemetery, and were immediately struck by the simple, still beauty of the grounds he kept — and by the crowd of people we were joining.

In the distance lay rolling hills criss-crossed with trees behind which men had died so that we could stand as free men and women at their graves. In the foreground milled around octogenarian Belgian men, wearing medals and garrison caps, who fought beside them and now returned each year to honor them.

There were wreaths and widows, miniature flags, ambassadors and generals. And the crosses — the rows and rows of angel-white crosses, with some stars of David mixed in — bearing names, dates, unit numbers. Or, sometimes, a line simply stating, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”

But I remember most clearly the fathers not much older than I, walking with sons or daughters perched on their shoulders, passing down an old lesson about hell and heroism, good and evil, selflessness and senselessness. And most of all, gratitude.

We would visit a different U.S. cemetery each Memorial Day while we lived in Belgium; there are, sadly, enough of them to cover more than a few Mays. There were elements common to each of them and to many of the ceremonies that take place here: military bands and speeches and, if you’re lucky, jets streaking overhead in a missing-man formation.

Other elements were unique, like the eye-wetting sound of Flemish schoolchildren, too young to know many other English words, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” among 368 tombs in Flanders Field.

It’s easier here to visit a Memorial Day service and, in a pinch, to ask for help finding it. There’s no reason not to take your children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews out for a couple of hours to retell those old lessons, as I’ll do with my son when he’s old enough to understand.

We’ll do as the engraving on the Flanders Field monument bids us. Wherever we meet them, we’ll “greet them ever with grateful hearts.”

– By Kyle Wingfield

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5 comments Add your comment

Bart Abel

May 30th, 2011
10:37 am

Consider visiting the website of the “Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America” to learn more about how we can help newer veterans adjust when they return home from battle: http://iava.org/?splash=off

LeeH1

May 30th, 2011
10:40 am

My ancestor, George Derr, was an abolitionist firebrand who joined the Union army on his 18th birthday. He was killed in action less than six months later in Petersburg, Virginia, fighting to free the slaves.

Today, his grave in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia is in an area frequented by black men and women who have voluntarily enslaved themselves to hard drugs. His tombstone is now a mark for fools to urinate against. Hypodermic needles and used condoms are often found nearby.

Black men and women were not freed by themselves- they were freed by the bayonets of the Army of the Potomac, carried by real heroes, mostly young white men, like Private George Derr.

If any black person says that the Confederate flag is a sign of racism today, then he or she had better back up their words by cleaning and decorating the grave of a Union soldier. Instead, they are far too often likely to desecrate the graves of those who gave up their lives and their posterity to give freedom to unknown slaves of another race.

Throughout Georgia, there are Union soldier’s graves every few miles. If you treasure your freedom, go out today and adopt a grave to clean and decorate. That would be a great thing to do on Memorial Day.

Dusty

May 30th, 2011
12:04 pm

Very nice piece, Kyle. Fine description and thoughts on the “hundresds of angel white crosses with some stars of David mixed in”. You gave us a good Memorial Day tribute. Thank you..

MrLiberty

May 30th, 2011
12:18 pm

While american soldiers have supposedly been fighting in Vietnam, Panama, Serbia, Kosovo, Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and countless others “to protect our freedoms”, our government here in the US has been taking them away. The leaders of these other countries, the armies of these other countries, even the so-called terrorists in these other countries NEVER had the ability to take away our freedoms, yet that has always been the excuse of our leaders for the wars we wage. Meanwhile those same “leaders” have been the ONLY people capable of taking away our freedoms and they have done so with reckless abandon.

On this memorial day we should all take a pause and give serious consideration to the real truth that while our soldiers have been defending our constitution from foreign non-enemies, the domestic enemies of our constitution and our freedoms have been woefully ignored.

Its time to bring our troops home where they can help us all truly defend the freedoms we still have left and work to restore all those we have lost while they were away.

Hillbilly D

May 30th, 2011
6:25 pm

A well written piece. You should repeat it every year.