A day to remember: honoring veterans

An encore piece from 2012:

red poppyIn the small hamlet of Bankfoot, Scotland, it’s a chilly, gray morning. People dressed in their Sunday best walk quickly to the local Cenotaph –what is considered an empty tomb. This one, an obelisk-style monument on top of a hill, is erected in honor of those who have served in the military and is adorned with wreaths of paper poppies at its feet. Townspeople encircle, stop, and pay homage; brass plates engraved with names are gently fingered by those close to their hearts. There is a moment of silence, followed by the piercing, mournful wail from a bagpipe.

The bagpipe’s siren song leads people back to the church. Others not in the informal procession stop what they are doing, open their doors, and bow their heads in humble reverence as they witness the moment. At the local church, there is a Sunday service dedicated to this annual Day of Remembrance; here, they stand, join voices, and sing a poignant “God Save the Queen.” On every coat or lapel, there is the red poppy – a bloody symbol from the poem “In Flanders Fields” that has come to represent all who have served their country and died in the process – from the Gurkhas to the young men – but, to someone my age, boys, really, at 18,19, 20 years of age — lost in Afghanistan.

In London, representatives from all branches of the military proudly walk in formation as they honor their fallen comrades. The Queen solemnly places a wreath at the foot of the London Cenotaph.

In homes across the UK, people are tuned into the BBC and watching this live broadcast. There are interviews with family members who have lost loved ones. Little sisters read poems; mothers remember the twinkle in their sons’ eyes; and fathers talk with pride. There are stories of entire villages decorating their windows with ribbons and posters welcoming home the body of one of their own. War hits hard here. No one is looking to forget.

Back in Bankfoot, later in the day, a young couple pushes a stroller up the incline to the Cenotaph. The wife places her hand on the plaque; her husband wipes silent tears sliding out from the corner of his eyes. Their toddle runs on the grass. The father takes his daughter’s hand and they walk further up the hill to the cemetery, where they place a bouquet of yellow and white chrysanthemums on a grave. It is an important day in their lives.

In the UK, this Day of Remembrance is a serious pause in daily lives. For the entire month prior to the day, people drop coins in a basket and take away the simple red poppy pin that is a way of saying “I remember and I honor.” The poppies become a ubiquitous adornment. You just need to walk through the rail station or local tube spot. That red paper flower symbolically links everyone with memory.

This is my second Day of Remembrance while visiting the UK. Each time, I have been struck with the deliberate focus and attention given to those lost in service of their country. This day has a palpable solemnity. It is not cursory or obligatory, but a genuine desire to stop and honor. Inevitably, I am in tears. There are the personal stories of families forever facing an empty chair. There is the parade with legions of weathered military that have seen more and endured more than any human being should; there are the wounded, and the young bright faces full of promise and courage.

Today, the US takes the time to stop and remember. May we join one another in a day of reverent remembering. No matter how we individually view war, we all share these losses. After all, we are all connected.

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