By Mike Grisso - 05/25/10 06:30 PM EDT
I found myself at Fort Riley, Kansas, sitting in a huge aircraft hangar that had been taken over for the evening. About three-quarters of the building had been reserved for an audience for the evening concert with a large stage facing the open area. The remaining section behind the stage had been set up for a ceremony ... a Ceremony of Remembrance.
There were 17 rows of chairs facing one side of the brightly lit space where there stood a podium off to the left and flags across the front. From where I sat on the far right chair in the third row, there were two tables off to the right upon which sat 10 dark wooden boxes, just like the one that holds watches on my dresser at home. Inside each box was a white satin pillow cushioning a gold medal on a red ribbon. On the front of the medal was the insignia of the U.S. Army. On the other side was the name of a soldier from that division who had fallen.
We were welcomed to the event by the Garrison Commander. The Chaplain gave an invocation. The National Anthem was sung as I held my hand over my heart and those in uniform snapped and held a strong but natural salute.
Then the Commanding General began to speak. Command officers speak often. They speak to those under their command, to community leaders, to superior officers and to elected officials. Most of the time this is done with well-prepared and respectful ease. This time the general was not polished ... his words seemed to tumble out instead of flowing. It was only then that I realized that there were a large number of children in the audience with me. The General then spoke to them.
Your fathers died because they were brave enough to keep us free. Your fathers died because they were brave enough to go to places that most people will not go.
My breath left me, my heart skipped and my eyes swelled. Now I knew the medals were for these children ... children of the fallen.
While the general stood in front of us in the middle of the display of flags, one of the organizers stood at the podium and called the first name. A boy, not more than 5 years old, stood and walked alone to stand beside the general. A soldier in desert camouflage and a black beret carried one of the wooden boxes to the general, who removed the medal on its ribbon. The general bent and placed the ribbon around the boy's neck and looked into his eyes not six inches away. He said something that only the boy could hear. The young man nodded and shook the general's hand. The two posed for a picture and the boy returned to his seat.
Another name was called; another child came forward ... a beautiful child ... how could any child not be at a moment like this?
A girl's name was called ... probably 6 years old and she went through the same ceremony, posing and smiling for the picture. Then her little sister's name was called, and this bouncy, adorable two-year old girl walked forward. She was wearing pink and her wild blond ringlets danced in all directions. Her little shoes squeaked loudly against the brightly polished hangar floor and we all smiled and laughed. Her daddy’s girl...l almost felt him looking at her with adoring eyes...stood as the others had, received her medal and sat down.
No child was more than 8 years old. No child had cried.
Then a girl of about 7 was called and came forward. She had dark hair cut in a bob, which framed her lovely face that was a model of what we used to call the “all-American girl”. Her eyes looked like they should shine, but at the moment they were sad, and as the general placed the medal around her neck, she choked back tears and for a moment slipped into the grip of the pain. The general lowered to one knee and embraced her lightly, willing love and support into the child while also covering her face from the crowd as she found her father’s strength and recovered. The photo was snapped and she returned to her seat. Her little sister came forward and, blessed by her youth, she had less of an ordeal.
A prayer was offered and it was over. The USO had brought refreshments and people visited and exchanged hugs. Laughter was now in order and it was plentiful. I met people who believed that their gallantry was ordinary, who were grateful for the moral support of the community and were just doing what there was to do, live and serve.
As the group filtered away to the concert area I saw the girl who had cried, and her little sister, and her mother...who was pushing a stroller. The young mother looked strong, but tired.
And as she walked away alone with her three children into a future that I somehow knew she would make whole, I thought about the things that I was worried about in my life, about the petty bumps in my really smooth road, about the cross words I say when kind ones would be easier and I could only think...
How dare I.