Steamboat Springs Death is something we all know but do not want to know. It is a universal truth, a separation that we come to understand through our innermost emotions, a sadness that identifies who we are. Together, on this Memorial Day 2011, our community gathers at the cemetery on the hill above our town. Among the granite and marble stones, flags of red, white and blue mark the graves of men and women who served in the armed forces of the United States of America. We are here for them.
Many who are buried here no longer have descendants who remember them. Today we claim them as our own, and we think, too, of those in final resting places far away, never to return home.
Driving through the gate and upward into the silence of this place, each of us feels the presence of loved ones no longer at our side, the tug of a memory instead of a hand, the emptiness that ever freshens with that memory. Yet, even the most empathetic civilian cannot grasp the soldier’s awareness of the person next to him as they step into harm’s way.
That first step, long before the battle begins, shapes a lifetime, introducing the very real possibility of death into every day. When finally called upon to advance and take part in the mission “in country” — wherever that might be – a soldier’s universe changes
in an ever narrowing focus. Do your job; stay alive. No matter how modern the technology or how intense the training, the bottom line defines a frightening descent into the reality of combat.
Those minutes and hours are the part we, the folks at home, never hear about. Individuals who seemed ordinary in nonmilitary life become bigger in that smaller world of the battlefield. We cannot see the transformation. We cannot perceive what lies behind the medals awarded or the bravery that sends one soldier to rescue another who calls out for help. We cannot imagine the fear of being under fire. Our soldiers — and they are our soldiers — see death at close range. It is neither hospital-sterile nor home-caring warm. It is dirty and ugly, and it hurts like Hell itself. There is no easy way to leave fallen fellow soldiers behind.
With heightened consciousness, soldiers sense one another’s presence: the person on the right, the person on the left, the one in front, and the one behind. The battlefield compacts time and space, thus bringing about what might seem to be a contradiction. There, in the midst of mind-numbing violence, an incredible expression of true humanity happens. The best soldiers realize it’s not just taking care of themselves, but rather an intensely felt responsibility of taking care of one another
We like to think of our military men and women in shiny, clean uniforms, as super heroes, but they are mostly just regular folks who go, do their job, and hope to return home. In doing so, though, they become something more than the rest of us. Some die in battle. The dimension of their graves far exceeds the physical measure. Others survive, living on to ponder the mystery of why.
We are their home, united by our need to be here for them all. Altough we cannot experience the impact of this day as they do, we know that no soldier should be alone on Memorial Day. Our presence expresses what we feel and want to say:
“All who have fallen are here with you now. We have come to honor them, and to stand by you who serve our country.”
Harriet Freiberger has lived in the Elk River Valley since 1982.