When people visit Washington, D.C., for the first time, they usually have Arlington National Cemetery on their list of must-sees. And when they get there, their two must-sees within the cemetery itself are the grave of President John F. Kennedy and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier actually represents many soldiers from many wars, honoring those U.S. service members who have died without their remains being positively identified. These “unknowns” were recipients of the Medal of Honor presented by the presidents who also presided over their funerals. The tomb is guarded 24/7 year-round, and visitors queue up in great numbers to see the famous changing of the guard.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day of recognition, a day of remembrance, and certainly a day of reverence. Although our thirst for capitalism seems to vie with the honoring of our heroes, it is not a day solely for buying cars, hitting the malls, and finding an “excuse” to have a sale. Memorial Day is not an excuse ... period. Those who fought in the wars that served to shape our country and grant us our precious freedom were not an excuse. These men and women who defended the USA were willing to forget their trivialities and fight for what this country has always stood for ... bleeding red, white and blue, not discounts and one-day sales.
Two years ago I had a book release in Indianapolis of stories that were difficult, but necessary, for me to write. I interviewed veterans from World War II to Iraq, listening to them finally speak out, telling me those stories they were never able to tell their own families. Many of them spoke of death, like Chuck Garrity from East Providence, who was assigned to be an escort for returning fallen heroes, each of them an unknown soldier to Garrity. Being a military escort is a difficult job. With each casket he was told the rank of the fallen hero, and he had to procure a personal escort of equal or higher rank to escort the casket to their final destination. It involved contacting the funeral home, meeting with the family, and staying with the remains throughout the funeral and burial. Sometimes it was Chuck himself who had to escort the body by plane or train across the country.
“It never got easier. The hardest part was meeting the families at the funeral home. I wore my dress uniform with a black arm band, and they would tell me stories of their son, father, uncle. Suddenly he was not an ‘unknown’ to me any more.”
Paul Kennedy, from Franklin, Ind., told me, “I was on the USS Sacramento that morning of December 7, 1941. I had just gone to bed after being on duty all night, and the general quarters alarm went off. That meant all hands on deck, but I couldn’t figure out why, since it was Sunday. Then the torpedoes started to fly. One hit the Oklahoma, and the three men standing on deck went straight up in the air. I never knew them, but I did. They were nothing more than bodies now, but they were brothers. I hated the Japanese all my life until I was 40 years old. Then I realized I didn’t want to die hating anyone, so I asked the Lord to forgive me for my hate, and I forgave the Japanese. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but I can still see it, see those bodies of fellas unknown to me, and I just can’t forget.”
“Without boots on the ground, you can’t put yourself in the same class,” says Michael Poulimas, a Midwesterner who served stateside during the Vietnam era. “So many died from here, many never returned, so we have no names. That’s why 12 years ago my wife and I created the Sharpsville Lights, one of the biggest holiday displays in the Midwest.” Drawing nearly 10,000 people a year, it employs 120,000 lights over two acres controlled by 352 computer circuits. “Every bulb means an unknown soldier to us, so we give them light.”
That’s just a smattering of what the “unknowns” mean to these vets. If you’re interested, “Tell Me Your Story” is still available at Savoy Bookshop in Westerly and Bank Square Books in Mystic. You will find in your reading that the unknown soldier rests not only in Arlington, but in many hearts everywhere.
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 17 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-539-7762.