As I started to write about DC, I realized that I would need to write two articles, one personal, one more objective. I couldn’t overlook the impact that time had on me.
I was nine years old the first time I visited DC. I remember we packed up the car and left before the sunrise to drive down from our home just north of Boston. We stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way and my parents treated my brother and me to a box of munchkins because we hadn’t tried to kill each other in the back seat. I searched the box for the chocolate doughnut holes despite the fact that I was convinced that eating a chocolate doughnut in the car when I was five had caused my mother to be rear-ended at a red-light. I could understand that the connection was coincidence and not cause, but I couldn’t shake the fear of causing another accident.
Despite my back-seat indulgences, we made it safely to DC. Years later, although I remember visiting specific sites, I also remember that I couldn’t understand the significance of what I was seeing. I can clearly remember staring into the granite wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I remember watching others make an imprint of the names by holding scrap paper to the wall and rubbing the surface with a pencil. I remember asking my mother why, but I don’t remember her answer. I don’t think I could have identified Vietnam as a country and I know I couldn’t have told you anything about the war. All I knew was that my father had been on a ship before I was born and involved in Vietnam somehow. The names, the tears, the scraps of paper didn’t make any sense.
Twelve years after that trip, I was married in March to the man I’d fallen in love with in high school who had just returned from a 13 month deployment to Iraq. While he was gone, I read all of the books about war and history that I could manage with my full-time college course load. I remember combing the stacks in the Boston Public Library one night and finding an entire section on the Korean War. It was the first I’d ever even heard of it and didn’t believe it had really happened. I couldn’t understand how I had never learned about it in school. I read first- hand accounts from soldiers who fought in both World Wars, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I had a nightly ritual of reading seven different newspapers online in search of military news while my then-fiance was deployed. After his return and after our marriage, I lived with him for two years on a military base. In those years I learned a lot about the war that soldiers face while away and at home. I knew I needed to return to D.C. with my new knowledge and understanding and so I worked it in as one of my first stops on my road trip.
I went to see the Vietnam Memorial at night, hoping to miss the crowds of people. I nearly missed the granite wall in the darkness even though spotlights light up the walkway. The part of the memorial that I did see right away that I don’t recall from when I was a child struck me so much more than the long list of names etched into the granite. Overlooking the wall is a statue of three soldiers. I stood staring at the statue in the darkness, mesmerized by the detail, the emotions, the mannerisms. Whoever carved the sculpture had to be either a veteran or someone who understood too well the feeling soldiers have after they’ve lost one of their brothers in arms. I returned again the next morning to see the statue in the daylight and was disappointed to see people posing, smiling beside the three soldiers and others taking selfies in front of the wall.
The scene at the newer World War II memorial, built in 2004, was much the same. More selfies, more smiling shots posed in front of the wall of gold stars representing the 405,399 soldiers who were killed. People relaxed on the edge of the center fountain with their bare feet wading in the water. I tried to focus on the monument itself– the two tall columns, one for the Atlantic, the other for the Pacific, flanking the fountain, and over 50 smaller columns with wreaths of stone and the state or US province that had helped the war effort carved into the side. The monument is beautifully designed and a powerful reminder of the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation.
Another part of the trip from 20 years ago that I remember is visiting Arlington National Cemetery. We saw the eternal flame at JFK’s burial site and I was more interested in how they kept the flame burning than who was buried beneath the marker. My parents were alive the day JFK was assassinated; for them visiting his grave was a much different experience than it was for me, even today after learning all that I have.
After seeing JFK’s grave, we waited to see the changing of the guard by the tomb of the unknown soldier. It was a sweltering summer day, just like the one from when I visited this week. We were standing in the sun for what felt like forever, watching a man in a uniform walk back and forth and click his heels at each end. I remember complaining that I wanted to leave, being shushed by my mother, and told that we had to wait for the changing of the guard. I remember I wanted to laugh at the man and his rhythmic walking. After the ceremony I still didn’t understand why we’d waited so long and why I wasn’t allowed to talk.
This week, I could feel the rubber soles of my black dress shoes melting into the hot stone steps that face the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as I waited for the changing of the guard. I was wearing an ankle length black and white skirt and black top—I didn’t feel right going into the cemetery in jeans or bright and cheery colors even if I wasn’t attending a funeral, I was paying respects to all the soldiers buried there. I could feel the sweat pouring down my legs and back and imagined what the soldier in his full dress uniform must be feeling though he didn’t show the least bit of discomfort as he paced back and forth, twenty-one steps in each direction, a twenty-one second pause facing the tomb and facing the other end of the walkway between sides. I closed my eyes and counted along with the clapping of his shined shoes on the rubber walkway worn thin from the constant marching. Although they didn’t voice it, I could feel the collective groan from the crowd that had gathered and been sitting on the steps when the lieutenant came and announced everyone should remain standing and silent during the changing of the guards. I looked around at the children in the crowd and wondered if they felt as I had twenty years prior.
I wonder if years from now a memorial will be built to honor Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and if my high school students who were newborns on September 11th and distantly relate to the war in much the same way I thought of Vietnam growing up, will someday rest their feet in the fountain if there is one or pose for a photo, not really understanding the significance of it all. I wonder too what could be done to teach the next generation to appreciate something so intangible, so unimaginable to them. Sadly, sometimes I think the only way they will truly know is to live it themselves.