There exists a headstone I may have glimpsed now and again from the road; my commute takes me past a national cemetary, so I drive past many such headstones. On the plain stone slab is carved the legend SMITH; it's all I spot as I zoom past. Today is Memorial Day, and I am thinking about you, SMITH. Never mind the parades, never mind the ceremonies, never mind the political speeches... this just between you and me, SMITH.
Who were you? All I know about you are those five letters spotted out of the corner of my eye. I didn't even catch your first name, or your rank, or the branch of service in which you served. Did you volunteer, or were you drafted? Or does that even matter? Either way, you went.
Were you ever in combat? What war? Was it World War II? Maybe you knew my uncle, who served in the Navy on a cruiser in the Pacific. Was it Korea? My Dad served stateside shortly after the fighting was over, he was a supply sergeant in the Army. Maybe you met him once. Was it Vietnam? Perhaps you knew my friend William, he was over there as a medic. Maybe he bandaged one of your wounds. Was it Grenada? Or Panama? Desert Storm? Iraq? Afghanistan? Truth be told, your stone looks too old and weatherworn to be any of those later ones.
When you got home, was it to parades and cheers? A hero's welcome? Or did people call you names and spit on you? Or did you come home in the coffin that now houses your mortal remains under that slab of white stone I see from the roadway? Are you one of the honored dead we remember on this day?
Or maybe you never saw combat. Maybe you were there helping civilians after a natural disaster, passing out food and water from a truck in some part of the world most of us couldn't find on a globe. Or Perhaps you just stood ready, at some base here or overseas, in case your were needed. Either way, you were there.
I know so little about you, SMITH. What kind of man were you? Where did your ancestors come from? What was your Faith? Who were your friends? Were you a good man, or a bad one? Were you even a man at all? We're quick to forget that women served also. How old were you? Were you married? Any kids? What did you do in civilian life? Maybe you were just a regular kind of person, not too different from myself, who faced up to extraordinary challenges and met them simply because that's what had to be done. You had a job to do, and did it. But I'm just guessing; I'll never really know.
And that bothers me, today of all days. You want to know why, SMITH? I'll tell you why.
Because of you, and so many others like you, I am free. Whoever you were, wherever and whenever and however you served, you did it for me, and you don't even know me. Our freedoms were bought and paid for not by the speeches of politicians, or the opinions of pundits, or the philosophizing of intellectuals, but by the blood of men and women like you, SMITH.
Thank you. Thank you, SMITH, whoever you were, for everything you did, everything you gave, everything you sacrificed, whether it was a little or a lot, or even everything. I'll never forget you. I wish I knew you better.
Maybe the next time I drive by the white marble slab that marks your place of rest, I should pull over and take a closer look.