Memorial Day, Portland, Oregon
Sometimes the most powerful messages come without words. They roll over us like rhythmic ocean contractions first lifting us up, and then dropping us head first into the sand before dissipating into a quiet hush.
Early morning fog hangs low over Washington Park in Portland, Oregon, masking a dazzling spring day in the Rose City. It will burn off. By eleven o’clock, it’ll all be gone. So I press on with enough optimism to drive away even the tiniest hint of rain on this day. I’m on a mission. Despite the fact that I have seen signs for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial while driving through Washington Park, I’ve never actually stopped there to see it for myself. Well, today I will stop. Today I will get out of my car and walk the hallowed grounds of the memorial. Today I will join the survivors of Vietnam – those veterans who returned, and those gold star families who have lived the void.
The memorial is actually a huge bowl-shaped grassy amphitheater designed more for community than formality. Like the backdrop in a movie scene, the spectacular outdoor setting immediately welcomes the weary war traveler into its cradle of serenity. The simplicity is stunning. Spiraling through the middle of the amphitheater, a handicapped-accessible sidewalk corks all the way around the memorial providing a tangible expression of the grueling progression of the Vietnam War.
I find a good viewing spot near the top of the amphitheater and settle in for a morning of tribute. Two young high school girls stand at the podium reading the names of military personnel killed in battle. Name after endless name reverberates across the grounds providing a soundtrack of valor for the morning’s events.
More people come. Streaming in from the parking lot, the veterans of Vietnam return home like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. It’s their annual family reunion. They roll up on Harleys, in wheelchairs, and city busses. They walk with canes, with limps, and with the humble dignity of warriors once removed. Wearing their uniform of choice, leather motorcycle jackets adorned with the insignias of their military units, they come accompanied by family, by friends and by the never-ending nightmares of war. This cadre of veterans assembles once again to honor those who died, while unconsciously proclaiming that they themselves have lived.
The fog lifts. The sun burns through the leftover residue.
A schoolteacher reads names of the fallen. “Lance Corporal Terry Adam Gray,” she says into the microphone. A bell sounds. “First Lieutenant Lawrence Day Greef,” another bell rings. A man to my left struggles to rise to his feet. Between the incline of the hill and his war injury, it’s a challenge for him to maintain his balance. His wife stands beside him offering him a shoulder to lean on.
“Private First Class Michael Jefferson Greeley, Second Lieutenant Guy Emery Greenfield,” the veteran bows his head. His friend’s name is read. He cries. His quick breaths add another layer to the soundtrack. In the middle of the safety of the clan, the soldier struggles to honor the loss of a brother he couldn’t bring home. No one speaks, yet they know. They all know that 40 years ago on the backside of a hill in Vietnam, this soldier made a vow to his friend who lay dying. Today he fulfills it yet again. He will not be forgotten, and he isn’t.
Another veteran, same “uniform” only sporting an additional red bandana to protect his head from sunburn, makes his way up the spiral sidewalk now lined shoulder to shoulder with veterans. Whether he knows them or not I’m not sure, but he greets each one as if they are long lost family members he hasn’t seen in years. Perhaps they are. This “minister at large” stops at each soldier and looks him in the eye. He offers a handshake, a hug or a pat on the back. Each one reached, each one touched, each one affirmed. His silent message of, “We may be scarred and broken, but brother, we made it through one more year,” comes through every touch of his hand.
He captivates me. I can’t take my eyes off of him. Had I seen this guy in any other context, any other context, I would have been scared to death. He looks vicious, but he’s not. Here, here in this sacred place surrounded by his band of brothers, he is a comforter. He touches all around him. Bandana man slowly makes his way to the top of the amphitheater where I am sitting. As he passes by, the words on the back of his jacket say, “I am my brother’s keeper.”
It’s from Genesis 4; the first recorded “war” in the Bible. Cain was angry with his brother, Abel, so he killed him. When God comes to investigate, Cain’s response is to mount a stiff defense. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain spews in anger at God.
Anger leads to hostility, hostility leads to violence, and violence leads to bloodshed. War is born. It might have only been between two people, but Cain’s murder of Abel carries the seeds of war. God honors Abel with His next statement to Cain when he says, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.”
Was Abel his brother’s keeper? Yes, actually, he was. We are all here to watch out for each other. Bandana man takes that charge seriously and with each touch of his hand, he honors the sacrifices his fellow soldiers have made.
A color guard enters; the ceremony begins. A young marine escorts his highly decorated marine grandfather to the bridge above the speaker’s podium. Sunlight catches the highly polished metal hanging from his grandfather’s chest heralding the presence of a hero in the crowd. Each medal drips with sacrifice.
Emotion overwhelms me in this field of valor, so I find a tree for solace. I spend the rest of the ceremony under the tree in tears watching these magnificent soldiers silently care for one another.
I run out of Kleenex.
A biker vet approaches me and offers me a Kleenex, which I take gratefully.
“I’m sorry, Sir” I start to apologize, but he raises his hand.
“No, not here. You never need to apologize for your tears in this place. We welcome them.”
I came here this morning expecting to hear words, but what I saw spoke much louder.
What I saw was love in action.
“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13 (NASB)
To those of you who have served this country in our military, thank you for your service. To those of you who have lost loved ones serving in the military, thank you for your sacrifice. To those of you who have served on the “home front,” thank you for your courage. And to those of you who now serve in our military, thank you for my freedom.
©Copyright, 2011 by Donna Tallman.