I imagine that every Memorial Day, especially here in Washington, where we live in the same moonlight and sunshine that falls on Arlington National Cemetery, is the same.
The President comes to say the right things, to lay wreaths, to honor our soldiers. There is a parade, there are speeches, and the Rolling Thunder roars into town. Grizzled Viet Nam vets come again to the memorial wall, tattooed, their wives and families with them, and still hold their breaths at the sight of a familiar name among the 55,000 engraved in the marble.
You can imagine this happening in towns small and large, any town worthy of a city hall and a statue, all over America. This memorializing, this home stand before the long hot summer, accompanied by furling flags, salutes, picnics, noisy cars and furniture sales. These are the customs of our land.
And we are at war, our soldiers in harm’s way, as they put it. The harm now is from roadside bombs, suicide bombers, rifle and mortar fire, the random explosions of fire from across the way.
And since 1983 or so, every Memorial Day is a little different, the picnic smoke, the music of taps, the memories of other years, because the list of the fallen grows every day.
In a commendable service, The Washington Post began an occasional section called “Faces of the Fallen,” which lists the soldiers with their pictures and particulars, and it always runs on Memorial Day. And so the day is different, as the war in Iraq rolls on and continues to do so. These faces are immediate, not terribly long gone, fallen not on the wayside but in places they never imagined to be growing up.
They have military faces in the way military photographs and IDs are taken, dogtags with eyes and ears and a stare. They are from all over, representative of the way we are now, so much more diverse than before, with many Hispanic names among the dead, and the faces and names of women, too.
Looking at the faces, the clichés gurgle up like water in a desert, a kind of relief. To name them is to create an echo: Senft and Locht and Pape, and Ortiz and Holder and Gassen and Harris, Middleton and Buenagua, Ramsey and Robinson, Flannery and Chihuahua, Carver and Carroll, Luff and Finch Lancaster and Cruz and Crouse, Simonetta and Villacis Gandy and Jones.
And to friends, they are Jason and James, Kelly and Ethan, Chad and Austin, Devon and Ardenjoseph, Austin and Buddy, Sean and Amy and Omar and Conrado.
And they come from places that in some other life we all imagined living in America, from Conway, NC, from Marina, CA, from Hutto, TX, from Hagerstown, MD, from Redwood City, from West Palm Beach, from Pittsburgh, from Princeton, from Tell City Indiana, from Derry New Hampshire and Akron Ohio.
And they died, were “killed while conducting combat operations,” from makeshift bombs at the hands of suicide bombers and other service-related causes.
And they are the reason why all the Memorial Days of our day are different.
Information and names are taken from the Washington Post’s “Faces of the Fallen” section, which ran on Memorial Day, May 30, 2011.