It is hard to believe that it was about twenty years ago when I made my first trip to Washington, DC. It was the summer of my freshmen year in college and I had been working at a steel fabrication plant for the last several months earning some money for college and gaining some work experience. As the summer drew to a close, I mentioned to parents that I would like for us all to go to Wash-ington and see the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I pointed out that it would be the last time we could take a vacation as a family and that it was probably the last chance I would have to see Washington. I was right about the vacation, I was married the following summer and we have not had family vacations since; I was wrong about it being my last time to see Washington, the Navy has seen fit to provide me with many opportunities to visit the center of democracy.
Since that eventful summer, I have been to Washington many times. Most of my trips have been occupied with work and have involved mainly seeing the sights offered by hotel rooms and office suites. Very little time has been available for site-seeing. A few months ago I was in DC for two weeks and happened to have a weekend free. The snow had let up, at least for a little while, I was caught up on my sleep, and I did not have any work that I was willing to do. So, I opted for a little site-seeing trip.
My trip twenty years ago was spent mainly in the Air and Space Museum. The museum is a very large place and it took the vast majority of one full day just to see a good portion of what it had to offer. As much as I would have liked to have visited it once again and to have seen the other Smithsonian Museums, I knew that I did not have the time. I wanted to see the Washington Monument and go up to the top this time, something we did not have time to do on my first trip. I wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial again. It is an impressive place and Lincoln is one of my favorite presidents; he is the man that held the country together through the worst war we’ve ever had and then he helped us heal afterwards. I wanted to see the Jefferson Memorial, a site I had only seen from the distance. Jefferson is my other favorite president; the crafter of democracy. Jefferson was instrumental in developing the Declaration of Independence and had some influence on the Constitution; those few words that have held this country together for over two hundred years; those few words that allowed us fight within and then re-unite; those few words that have made us, the United States, the envy of the rest of the world.
There were other sites that I wanted to see as well. I wanted to see the Vietnam wall. And to enjoy a walk through the Mall. I had hoped for time to go inside the Capitol, perhaps the Mint, and I would have liked to have seen the Holocaust Memorial. But, there are only so many hours in the day and not everyone was willing to stay open as long as I willing to stay and visit.
I hopped off the Metro at the Smithsonian station and popped up at the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. I made a path for the Washington Monument. It was being renovated and had scaffolding surrounding it. It was quite a funny site, particularly from the air as I flew in to the airport. I noticed that there were no long lines waiting to get in the Monument so I had a brief moment of excitement that perhaps I would get to go to the top. That feeling was short-lived when I realized that there could be another reason why there no long lines. The Monument was closed. Once again, cheated out the trip; twenty years ago by a line that was too long and now by a line that was too short.
Since the Washington Monument was off-limits, I set out for the Lincoln Memorial. A choir was on the lower section of steps that led up to the Memorial performing some songs. I stopped and listened for a while then walked up the upper level of steps. I passed the spot where my father and I had stopped and talked to a Hare Krishna girl on my last trip. She was handing out material and taking donations. I think we gave her a dollar or two. My mother was a little upset that we had given her any money at all but my father and I both agreed that it was worth the money just to talk to her. She was kind of cute and had a pierced nose. At the time a pierced nose was an oddity, even for Washington but today she would be “under-pierced” for someone her age.
I arrived at the top of the steps and stood there for a while looking at the statue of Lincoln and then turned around and looked at the Washington Monument. The site was beautiful, slightly overcast but a fairly pretty day.
After reading the inscriptions on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, I walked over to the Korean War Memorial. The visit to this memorial was perhaps the most moving I had on the entire trip. A garden-type atmosphere was present. Entering from the rear of the memorial you see a very realistic rendition of life-size soldiers walking through a field. They have aged with time and weather and, from a distance, look very realistic. A closer inspection reveals remarkable detail in their faces and their uniforms.
People were all around. Children were playing, running and yelling. Adults were talking loudly, some were laughing. I asked myself, “Did they understand what this was about?” This was not an episode of M*A*S*H; this was about peoples lives, and about their deaths, their sacrifices. On a wall at the front of the memorial area was a large engraving which read simply Freedom is not Free.As I read that and listened to the sounds around me, I wondered, did anyone really understand what that meant or was I surrounded by the Gulf War generation; the generation which thinks of war as a video game and smart bombs. Did anyone understand that people died for their country, that wives lost husbands and that parents lost sons?
Disgusted, I turned and was about to leave when I saw him. An elderly gentlemen, perhaps in his sixties, standing alone at the front of the memorial looking back at the sculptures. He was not moving at all, in fact I thought he had grown tired of waiting for someone and was staring off into space. For some reason I looked a little closer at him and then I saw his face. His eyes were moist, his cheeks were damp. He had a combined look of sadness and pain. I watched for a few more seconds and I realized that he was unaware of any of the children around him, he heard none of the jokes by the adults; this man was re-living a painful experience, perhaps of losing a friend in the war, perhaps he was thinking about how lucky he was to have survived, perhaps he was waiting after all, waiting for someone who would never come home. I wanted to say something to him but I did not want to disturb his reverie. I did what I could. I slowly walked up and stood next to him for just a few minutes. I wanted to thank him for his sacrifice, to let him know that someone cared and appreciated what he had done, appreciated the sacrifices he had made. I was honored to stand by someone who knew that Freedom was not Free, someone who was fully aware of the high cost of the freedom we enjoy each and every day.
As I left and walked to the other side of the Mall, I found the Vietnam War Memorial to be quite a different experience. The long, black wall seemed to stretch for miles. Some children were playing around it, others were simply walking. I saw mothers and wives with paper and pencil making rubbings of the names of their sons and husbands. I read the last name on the wall and wondered how it would feel to have a loved one who was the very last to die in that war.
It was a humbling experience to see that wall, the names listed in chronological order of their deaths. These men also had given their lives for their country, given their lives in a war that we are all too willing to forget. A war in which we are all too willing to forgive those who found a way out.
This month is the month we celebrate the writing and adoption of the United States Constitution, the document to which every military officer swears his or her allegiance. That document, the pages that provide us with the democracy we all enjoy, has been defended with the lives of over three million men and women. Lives lost in Yorktown, Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, and many other places. These lives given because those before them, in the words of John Adams, dared to read, to think, to speak, and to write. These three million lives are a testament to the harsh reality that freedom is indeed not free. The war memorials in Washington are moving and solemn, they provide us with the opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices made by others. But the real memorial, the lasting thing that should remind us of these Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines every day, is the Constitution. It is the Constitution and all that it stands for that caused these fine men and women to make the ultimate sacrifice and it is the living document that has hundreds of thousands of other men and women waiting to jump to its defense on a moments notice.