Nine days ago 70,000 people gathered together at Arlington National Cemetery to lay wreaths on the graves of our veterans as part of the Wreaths Across America program. Their mission is to spread the message about the importance of remembering our fallen heroes, honoring those who serve, and teaching children about the sacrifices made by veterans and their families to preserve our freedoms.
It was good to be part of that experience but Arlington is best witnessed when the hallowed grounds are quiet and so a week later my husband and I went back to see the wreaths in the silence of a December morning.
For this gathering of souls, our nation’s finest, deserves our time and our tribute.
I’m always humbled and subdued after spending time at Arlington but never as completely as I was on this day when I looked over and saw a gathering of a very different sort, as we headed back to our car. This wasn’t the gathering of the week before of the tens of thousands, nor was it the silent gathering of white marble headstones as far as the eye can see, but rather a few chairs around a single headstone, a patriotic blanket laid out over a grave, Christmas decorations, and a family. A family there visiting a son and brother who lived his last day, in Afghanistan, in his twenty-sixth year and whose death has impacted his parents and sister in ways most us will never begin to understand or fathom.
Keith is named after his father but that caused confusion when he was young (his mom related that they never knew whose attention she was trying to get!) so they nicknamed him Buck. His parents are both Army veterans. They live near the university I attended in Kentucky and his sister works at a medical center associated with the university where my husband was an ROTC cadet in Cincinnati. I was struck with the ways in which our lives intersected.
The family travels to DC to visit him every 6 to 8 weeks. Theirs is a fierce love and their loss is great. It’s a poignant reminder that each of these marble headstones represents a story, and a family, and memories. Each of these headstones represents dreams, loyalty to country, and a hero who believed in our way of life.
In this unseasonably warm winter the cherry trees are blossoming as the wreaths lie on the ground, a testimony, perhaps, to the cycle of life and the hope that even though the darkest and coldest days of winter are still ahead, these heroes, especially those who have given their lives defending our freedoms, have not done so in vain.
As a nation it’s our responsibility to make sure that remains true.
As individual citizens it’s easier to do now that we’ve met SSG Buck Shea’s family. Let’s do it for them.