Lucky enough to have been one of the few who guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier I can share a few thoughts about this very special day. My early memories of Memorial Day prior to time spent in the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment were cluttered with barbeques and for the most part, school-free days of leisure. Back then, I had yet to fully grasp the importance of the day. Today, it is the most significant of days in the calendar year to me. I hesitate to use the term ‘holiday’, as Memorial Day is a time to reflect and pay tribute. My most special memory of this day occured while I was Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery is the most busy day of the year (although rivaled by Veterans’ Day). For Tomb Guards, it is a jarring break from the ‘normal’ routine of 21 steps, heel clicks, and guard changes. Throughout the day, the guard’s walk is broken up with multiple wreath layings from various groups and individuals. The day is filled with regular irregulars all the way from the President (whose wreath laying is followed by a televised speech and ceremony in the Memorial Amphitheater directly behind the Tomb) to the Boy Scouts, and the bizarre “Order of the Cootie” (a veteran’s group with roots in World War I who can lay over 100 wreaths each year depending on the number of VFW posts participating).
However, one group, the American Gold Star Mothers (AGSM), remains etched in my mind and continues to stir deep feelings whenever I reflect on the meaning behind their organization. I’m not sure if they were more solemn than the other groups, but in my mind’s eye they are stoic and dignified. From my position in “The Box” where the guard stays during the ceremony I was able to observe many groups on those days. I noticed the muted cutting up that these folks take when present at the Tomb on a hot day. Sometimes they laugh quietly and speak amongst each other, usually in awkward awe at the seriousness at which we carry out our duty.
These Gold Star Mothers neither cracked a smile nor cried as they laid their wreaths at the base of the Tomb and lined up along the chains awaiting the bugler’s rendition of “Taps”. At this time, circa 2002, our country was staring down the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom less than a year later. The ranks of the Gold Star Mothers were populated with many women with white hair, mothers to children lost in the Vietnam War. They were emblazoned in pure white balanced by the mid-day marble the Tomb resides on. As “Taps” played, I did noticed a few tears and hugs of support, and when they filed away I found myself heavy with emotion.
Their presence on the plaza represented alot to me. I thought of my own mother, at home worried sick wondering if her son would end up in Iraq. I thought of those women on the plaza, decades removed from seeing their child. Their pain was palpable that day. Many times, soldiers like myself enlist without batting an eye thinking about the ramifications of service, much less how it makes our mother feel. We are invincible ministers of death, trained in the greatest military the Earth has ever seen. Dwelling on the reality of service doesn’t really fit in with the mentality of success or mindset of anyone in the armed forces.
Of course the Gold Star Mother’s understand. Their white uniforms stand out in stark contrast to traditional mourning color of black. From their website, they explain the rationale behind this color choice:
“The decision by AGSM to wear white, rather than black, was a strong statement of how the women wanted to be perceived as they participated in the organization’s business. Yes, they mourned their lost children, but white made a symbolic statement that went beyond mourning, a statement of peace, sacrifice, innocence and goodness. Those were the things that their children had been and had died for – wearing white celebrated their children’s contributions while the gold star acknowledged their sacrifice.”
Sadly, the last decade has seen their ranks have increased in number, bolstered with the young mothers of this generation’s war. These days, whenever I think of Memorial Day, I reflect on the Gold Star Mother’s of America and their continued memorialization of those cherished sons and daughters lost in our country’s wars.
Originally written in 2011 for The Daily Beast.