For America’s Heroes: Gracias

Thank you, Veterans. Your sacrifices afford me my freedoms and that is a debt that I can never repay save for my utmost respect, admiration and eternal gratitude.

God Bless America! And God bless her Veteran Sons and Daughters!

The followings my small tribute to America’s Veterans, written after a trip to the Nation’s Capital:

At the Mall

It’s your first time in Washington, DC. All your life you’ve wanted to go to the nation’s capital but because of some reason or another, you’ve never been able to take the trip. So when the opportunity arose for you to make a one day visit to the city you jumped on it even though you had to leave your wife behind whom you’ve never been apart from and would only basically have a few hours here and there to see some of the sights.

You arrive at Ronald Reagan Airport late at night, hop on a cab and head over to your friends place where you’ll be staying for a night or two. As you drive into the city, crossing a bridge whose name you’ll forget by morning, you get a brief glimpse of that pillar that stands as a symbol for the city, for the country: The Washington Monument. A small lump grows in your throat as you drive by the famous landmark that you’ve seen in oh so many movies and televisions shows and newscasts and photographs.

It towers there, lit up like a beacon. A stone broadcast telling you that you are at the very heart of the Nation. You decide right then and there that come tomorrow, you will use that hour or two you have to spare to visit the Washington Monument. It is also, after all, very close to another monument, a memorial, that you’ve wanted to see: The War World II Memorial. A memorial, that you think, as you make your way through the near empty late night streets of Washington DC, took way too long to be built.

The second world war has always been something of a fascination for you. The absolute bravery of the men and women of the Armed Forces. The 101st, the 82nd Airborne, the Big Red One. The Allied Forces. Pearl Harbor. Okinawa. The battle at Midway. Bastogne. The beaches of Normandy made red with the blood of America’s youth. The sacrifices of countless families, who saw their children head off to war in foreign lands. Naive Davids who raced off to face the Goliath of fascism.

Your friend who’s graciously offered you shelter for the next couple of nights wrote about the dedication weekend for the World War II Memorial and his report is something that has stayed with you forever. What an amazing and humbling sight that must have been. You cant, no matter how hard you try, erase this man’s countenance from your thoughts.

The next morning you awaken early, put on a suit and tie and head over to the White House grounds for your meeting. That lump you had in your throat last night doubles in size as you stand there on Pennsylvania Avenue taking in this beautiful sight before you. The White House. The home of the Presidents of the United States of America, past and present. So many thoughts are reeling in your head. So much history is before you. If those hallowed walls could talk.

A few hours later you find yourself on Pennsylvania Avenue once again, trying to sear into memory what you’ve just experienced. Words fail you. All you have inside your goosebump-riddled body is a sense of overwhelming awe mixed in with much humility and surrounded by an all encompassing pride. You think you will never feel as American as you do right then and there. You think of your parents and what they went through for you to be standing there at that precise moment in time. My God, if only Mom and Dad could be here with me right now.

You wipe the tears from your eyes and decide there is no better time to pay respects to this country that adopted you and your family than the present. You decide to visit the Memorial.

You make your way though the now bustling streets of downtown Washington D.C. with your head buzzing. You remember how you helped your father with his English, how you helped both he and Mom study for their Citizenship test. How the first words your Dad said as an American were “This is the proudest day of my life.” You remember the kid in kindergarten who beat you up because you weren’t an American. “You’ll never be an American,” he taunted as you lay on the ground in tears.

There are people all around you, making their way here and there, to their offices, to their homes, to the landmarks. They are all so different, you think to yourself, yet so the same. You wonder if they all feel as you do right now. So overwhelmed. So humbled. So honored. So patriotic. So American.

You pass through two buildings housing different sections of the Smithsonian and wish you had enough time to visit them. All of them. They say it could take months to see every exhibit of the Smithsonian and as you stand eyeing a map of the Mall, you realize that it’s true. You’ll come back, you think to yourself, with your wife some day and take each and every exhibit in.

You make your way to the sodded tree lined center of this National Landmark. There are still people hustling and bustling all around you. Men and women in business suits with briefcases, tourist families of all stripes with maps and backpacks. Joggers making music with their gait on the gravel walkway.

And there, a city block or two away from you, stands the Washington Monument. That familiar lump that seems to have taken residence in your throat makes its presence known again.

You walk down this tree lined gravel way towards the Monument. It’s a beautiful, cool day. There are folks posing for pictures, people having coffee as they read their newspapers on benches, children running around and being children. Their parents doing their darndest to keep them at bay. Tents are being erected for some celebration or event.

And then you find yourself right in front of the Monument. It is an awesome sight. Inspiring, simple. A tall, stately stone monument stretching up into the clear sky surrounded by a circle of Old Glories waving briskly in the breeze. Once again words fail you. All you can do is take in this sight before you and appreciate the fact that you can.

You sit there on the grass for a while enjoying these few moments that such a co-mingling of events and occurrences have afforded you. You wish your wife were with you to share this moment. Your parents, your nieces, your family. You wonder if your grandparents are watching you from heaven. You are thankful to all for this opportunity. Not just your family, but the George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons and Abraham Lincolns and John Does. Every single American that came before you and lived as an American is to be thanked.

You pick yourself up off the lawn in front of the Washington Monument, dust off the grass from your clothes, take a deep breath and begin to make your way to the War World II Memorial. In your mind you are convincing yourself that you will not break down.

You gotta be strong, you say to yourself. Stay cool.

But that lump, that lump just comes right back as you stand at the crosswalk with the Memorial in sight. Your eyes begin to well yet again and you havent even stepped foot on the Memorial grounds.

You take another deep breath, compose yourself, and cross the street. As you make it to the sidewalk, a young couple, in their twenties, walk past you and you overhear the girl say “I dont get it” in reference to the memorial they’ve just left. You stop at the curb and look back, fight the urge to rush over to her, to them, and give them a quick berating piece of your mind. Give them a history lesson. A lesson in sacrifice, a lesson in gratitude. A lesson in courage and determination. A lesson in pride.

But you dont. It’s not that some people dont get it. It’s that some people dont want to get it. And that, in and of itself, is the beauty of being an American. Take all the freedoms that you want and give nothing in return. That’s the choice your fellow Americans, through generations, have given their all for you to have. Is there anything more beautiful than the selfless sacrifice of so many for that ideal?

You read the dedication at the entrance to the memorial battling the lump in your throat and then take the few steps up to the memorial dais. Despite the many people there, it is peaceful. The sound of the fountain in the center is soothing, serene. It whispers a purposeful reverence for those whom the memorial pays homage to who lived through and died amid the defeaning rumble of war.

To your right is a monument to those who fought in the Pacific Theater, to your left, to those who fought in the European Theater. At the opposite end of the entrance are small fountains that displace their waters out into the famous wading pool that sits at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

It is there, by these fountains, where you see a group of white haired people gathered. You know in an instant this group is made up of veterans of the very same war this monument memorializes. You make your way around the central fountain over to the group and stand somewhere on their outskirts.

There is an old gentleman at the center, in uniform, whom despite the year’s toll on his body, stands with the pride of military man. White locks whisp out from under his medal and pin filled garrison cap. He is speaking to his group of fellow veterans and all are intently listening. Some of the men have tears streaming down their cheeks. Their wives there with them perhaps as their emotional crutches.

You can barely make out what the uniformed man is saying and you take a few steps closer. You hear the man thanking these gentlemen and women for being there and for their sacrifices and service to their country. “If you’ll bow your heads,” he says, “in a moment of silence to honor our fallen brothers.”

You bow your head in reverence and at that precise moment, it’s as if the entire world is silent. Not even the fountain behind you can be heard. The moment, it seems, lasts a lifetime.

“If you will now please join me,” the man interrupts the silence, “in the singing of Amazing Grace.”

You do your best to sing along with them, but the lump in your throat gets the better of you. You can muster only whispers beneath your breath as you try to mouth the words. You can barely hear the words and look at the men and women around you and they too, are grappling with their emotions. All of them fighting back the tears yet all of them singing through them. It is the most amazing version of Amazing Grace that youve ever heard.

“To the flag,” the white haired uniformed man then says and all, yourself included, turn to the Old Glory waving majestically at the foot of the Memorial. You are so overwhelmed with emotion that you are breathing through sobs and then, through the silence the sound of a bugle begins the opening notes of Taps.

The old man has trouble hitting all the notes of the song but it doesnt really matter. It is resonant that this is the case. Beautiful, even. Despite all the years, this man, and these men and women around you, still remember their brothers and sisters and the ultimate sacrifice they made.

Your knees weaken as the bugling ends. That lump in your throat has transformed into an all out sob. You think you’re going to fall to your knees right then and there so you stagger over to the marble bench around the fountain and sit.

Try as you might to be strong, to not let these men and women see you, you just cant control the weeping. It is as if all of the emotions you’ve been trying to keep at bay since your arrival have just exploded and will not be subdued.

As you try to compose yourself, you glance over at the group and one woman in particular sees you there with tears in your eyes. She says something to her husband, another garrison capped man in a wheelchair and then walks over to you.

“Are you alright, young man?” she asks. She reaches into her purse and hands you a couple of tissues.
You try to speak but nothing comes out. You are choked with emotion. You feel her hand gently patting you on your back. Comforting you like your own mother would comfort you.

“Thank you, maam,” you finally manage to say.

“You’re welcome, young man,” she responds.

‘No, maam,” you say. “Thank all of you for the sacrifices you all made…” You can’t complete your sentence for the sobs. She gently places her hand on the nape of your neck. You feel her fingers through your hair.

“I’m grateful,” you again manage to say. “For everything that you all have been through so that this once Cuban exile boy could be here right now.”

The woman looks you in the eyes, she too is teared filled. She breaks into a smile from ear to ear and nods.

“You’re very welcome, young man.”

“Yes,” you think to yourself. “I have been.”

4 thoughts on “For America’s Heroes: Gracias”

  1. Beautiful, Val. Thank you.
    I wish the feelings were universal in this country, but alas they don’t seem to be these days.

  2. To Jason, David, and Manny – thank you for your service and willingness to sacrifice. And to my dear Mike – go serve and we’ll be here for you. God bless all our vets and their families.

  3. Val:

    What a beautiful, wonderful essay. I’d read it again but I’ve run out of Kleenex. I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one who gets choked up.

    Of all the valor and sacrifice of that period, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen is particularly close to my heart. As one of the survivors put it: “I think we’re the only people who had to sue for the right to die for their country”. The faith in this country they showed in the face of bigotry and discrimination is inspiring. I was at the Experimental Aircraft Association annual event (one of the biggest aviation gatherings in the world each year) in 2007, and discovered the Tuskegee Airmen had an exhibit. I just wanted to say thank you, but despite being there all week I couldn’t get within ten feet without verging on breaking down.

    This country is richer for your family’s presence (and those of the other Cuban exiles). When I was 10 we lived in a duplex owned by a Russian immigrant couple. The man was a successful plumber, a bluff but kindly type, and the grandmotherly wife would sometimes let us come in to watch their new black-and-white Philco TV with the round screen. I found out much later from my mom that they were true refugees – that the wife was the only survivor of her family from the revolutionary period, hiding on the top of a railway car while the rest were massacred. Perhaps the young couple you mentioned will wise up some day.

    Anyone who is confused about who is or isn’t an American should read Lincoln’s “Electric Cord” speech. It hasn’t been said any better.

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