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The price they paid for the gift they gave.

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They went away to places they maybe had never heard of, maybe could not spell, maybe could not pronounce.

Places like Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Belleau-Wood.

Places like Leyte, Okinawa, Guadalcanal, Anzio, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Ardennes.

And Inchon, Pyongyang, Seoul, Kaeson.

Dien Bien Phu, Saigon, Chu Lai.

And many more.

So many, many more.

They went away in great numbers.

Young. Or just past young.

Ripped, yanked  from the lives, the ways, the routines they had known.

Away —  some for the first time — from the umbilical cord of home.

Home, where they were safe as houses.

Away from that which was familiar, cherished.

Roger Summers
Roger Summers

Away from wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, relatives near and distant, friends, acquaintances.

Sent away on bouncing, rolling, tossing, smelly ships and roaring, crowded, shaky, uncomfortable airplanes.

Frightened. Uncertain. Homesick.

With no idea when they might get back.

If ever.

Certain, perhaps, only of what was expected of them, of what they must do when they got there.

There to those far-off places they maybe had never heard of, maybe could not spell, maybe could not pronounce.

Let alone locate on a map.

Yet they went.

Duty, loyalty, purpose, expectancy summoned them.

And, in the end, duty, loyalty, purpose, expectancy claimed them.

Claimed them in great numbers, numbers too large to precisely count. Estimates must do.

So today – this Memorial Day – we remember them.

Or should.

What they did.

The price they paid.

The price extracted at such staggering, brutal, heavy cost.

Proudly, reassuringly on this special day the flags in countless numbers gloriously wave, tugging mightily at the soul.

Majestically, buoyantly the bands again call up the tunes – the fanfares, the overtures — that inspire, bring lump to throat, tear to eye.

In person and in photographs and in videos and in the 20-20 vision of the  mind’s eye – though in some instances maybe blurred, dimmed by the passing of time —  we go to the national cemeteries  and other cemeteries where by the hundreds of thousands those who went away are at deserved, honored, peaceful rest.

There where the row upon endless row of markers collectively and soberly and somberly remind of the incalculable price that has been extracted.

Painfully paid in full.

And then some.

Paid so that those of us who are here this day can go on and have opportunity to be all that we might be.

And so that those who come after us can too.

In another time, I found myself in Washington, D.C., and spent the better part of a  day thoughtfully, reflectively walking the seemingly boundless expanses of Arlington National Cemetery, hours of solitude spent step-by-step absorbing the enormity of it all.

The endless sea of graves, with its wave after wave of white markers, in one sweeping view proclaiming  the story of this place,  a story brought hauntingly to mind and to an  awakened, appreciative heart.

The Tomb of the Unknowns served as something of an ever-on-duty sentinel, seemingly there  to silently  but assuredly and perpetually, even prayerfully, watch over all who are  within its reach.

It was autumn and the trees with their turning, seasonal  mixture of oranges and reds and burgundies  and golds and yellows and browns  painted a serene, kaleidoscopic portrait, a fitting backdrop for those at their final, earthly home.

Now and then, soothing and uplifting bird songs blessed the day. A full yet comfortable sun gently kissed the quiet and hallowed grounds, as if to salute those interred there.  A welcoming, soft  blue, cloudless sky seemed to softly smile and say,  “Well done.”

I walked.

I looked.

I wandered.

I wondered.

I wondered who the one now at rest at this particular marker just before me might have been.

Or the one at the next  marker.

Or the next.

Or . . .

A father? A mother? A son? A daughter? A husband? A wife?

And what might they have become?

A doctor? A lawyer? A merchant? A mechanic? A police officer? A nurse? A teacher?

What were their dreams? Their hopes? Their goals?

Their assignments are over, achieved through valor, commitment.

Our dreams? Our hopes? Our goals?

They endure.

Made possible in large measure by what those whom we remember this day did when they went away to those places they maybe had never heard of, maybe could not spell, maybe could not pronounce.

Still, they went away.

And now they are here and their wars – their wars of long ago, their wars of not so long ago, their wars of this very moment – for them are over.

And what are we to make of the priceless, full measure, selfless gift they gave to us?

Roger Summers is a journalist, author and essayist.

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Please click the book cover image to read about the heartwarming short story collection of Roger Summers in Heart Songs from a Washboard Road.

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