As you know, Saturday was Veterans Day. Bill and I have not served in the military, although a good majority of our family has. We’ve always respected those who have and do – for all they have done and sacrificed, and for all they continue to do and sacrifice.
We know the actual service is tough, for so many reasons, and we also know that the months, years and decades afterward can also be very difficult. We’re proud of and love our family members, friends, children of friends, and friends of our son, who have served. Their strength – physical, emotional and spiritual – has enriched us, and awed us.
This fall, a lot of things hit home. It was especially heart-warming to know that Bill’s dad, Harry, was able to go on an Honor Flight – a one-day plane trip to Washington, D.C., to honor vets (it used to be mostly, or all WWII vets – lately, it has included Korean-era vets and women who served). Bill’s oldest brother, Mike, was Harry’s companion on the trip.
The Honor Flight volunteers are pretty terrific. They make sure the adventure is unforgettable, from the sight-seeing, to the “mail call” on the flight home (family members and friends have the opportunity to write notes to the vets, thanking them for their service). When the flight lands in D.C. at the beginning of the day, the vets are met by hundreds (if not more) strangers, from schoolchildren to vets to choirs. At the end of the day, hundreds of people again greet them to thank them for their service.
From everything we’ve seen, this is one of the most amazing days many of these (mostly) men have ever had (and so much of the experience is unexpected).
We’ve never really had the chance to do something to show our appreciation. So when Bill saw the other day that our local veterans’ organizations hold a 24-hour vigil at the main flag of our Veterans’ Memorial Park – and that they look for volunteers – he asked me if I wanted to take part. Most of the one-hour shifts are covered by fellow vets, police officers, honor guards, firefighters, etc., but there is also a “patriot” category, as they called us.
This is the 25th year of our local vigil. It starts at each year at midnight on November 11, and groups of at least two people take turns standing guard – silently watching – over the flag for 24 hours, in order to pay tribute to those who have served (and paid the ultimate price) locally. We drew the 10-11 p.m. shift. I’ll be honest; I wasn’t excited about that, especially since the weather forecast was …… ummm…..not exactly hospitable.
But 10-11 p.m. last night, it was. And yesterday’s weather was actually pretty yucky here in Winona (dozens, if not more, people slid off roads all around us due to the icy weather mix – thankfully, no one was seriously injured). When I went to the grocery store about 4 p.m., and it was only 25 degrees with freezing rain, I was REALLY dreading it.
But – we made and ate some hot and filling soup ahead of time – we dressed warmly in layers (making sure we had gloves, scarves and hats, and kleenix for the inevitable runny noses) – and we stopped ahead of time for hot chocolate and coffee. We got to the appointed place about 15 minutes ahead of time (for Winona friends – it was in the bunker BELOW the bandshell – who knew this even existed??). There was plenty of hot food and beverages available, as well as information about the event itself.
Our host met us and the other people we were going to stand watch with. He told us what we could expect, then we headed out. It was pitch black (except for the lights illuminating the flags), cold (although it had actually warmed up to about 34 degrees!), and almost silent. We relieved the 9-10 p.m. shift (all of them were vets; the 4 of us on our shift were not). Then we stood, as tall as we could, in a straight line, and prepared to watch over the flag for an hour in silence.
All I can say is, “wow.” I thought the 60 minutes of standing, in the cold, in total silence, would be endless and beyond. But it wasn’t. It was 60 minutes of silence, and contemplation, and meditation, and realizing we were taking part in something so very much larger than ourselves. It went so much faster than I would have anticipated. When the next (and final) shift relieved us, I was surprised that we were done so soon.
I found myself thinking about all the people who have sacrificed for us, who have endured unspeakable horrors, who have quietly done their jobs, who have struggled with demons after they’ve come home. I thought about what a world without conflict would look like. I thought about how lucky we are, to have been born when and where we were (our “accidents of birth”). I thought about all those we love who have been in harm’s way – plus those we don’t know who have also had those same scary experiences. It was a very, to put it bluntly, holy hour.
I’m so grateful we had this experience. It was just a tiny glimpse into a large world. It took a long time for us to debrief when we got home. We would do it again. We would urge you to do something similar, if you get a chance.
If you have served, thank you. Thank you for what you have done, for what you have seen, for what you have experienced. Thank you for keeping us safe. Thank you for your service.