Thursday, May 31, 2007

COMMENTARY>>This Memorial Day was different

By Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi
U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) — It was 3:30 a.m. in my deployed location, and I couldn’t sleep. For whatever reason, my mind was reeling with thoughts of this year’s Memorial Day celebration.

For a military photographer, Memorial Day usually means work.

As others gather to celebrate and honor our fallen comrades in arms, military photographers are there with equipment hanging all over themselves documenting the ceremonies.

We rarely get to actually participate in honoring our war dead as we’re too busy monitoring white balance settings, making sure our scenes are well composed and are in focus.

We then frantically work the files to get them sent to whatever agency needs them for publication. By then, the celebrations are done and we’re too tired to think about the significance of the day’s events. So we put away our gear and we go off to relax and join the family and friends at gatherings and barbeques. As an Air Force photojournalist stationed in our nation’s capitol since 2001, my past several Memorial Days have been no different. I’ve spent the majority of them documenting the activities at Arlington National Cemetery.

I’ve recorded the president, vice president, secretary of defense, and several chiefs of staff as they lay wreaths and pontificate on the importance of the day without really hearing their words or pondering the day’s significance.

Without really stopping to think about what I was witnessing, I’ve recorded both old and young warriors saluting their fallen brother’s and sister’s in arms. I’ve also recorded far too many tears belonging to the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters and husbands and wives of the men and women who’ve paid the supreme sacrifice in protecting the freedoms we enjoy everyday.

On a fall Sunday, in 1864, in the small village of Boalsburg, Pa., the daughter of a fallen Civil War officer and the mother of a fallen Civil War enlisted man independently laid flowers on the graves of their departed loved ones. After speaking to each other following their private tributes they agreed to meet the following year to do the same. Their local town’s folks heard of their plan and joined them to lay flowers on the graves of all the Civil War dead who lay in the town’s cemetery.

The event became known as Decoration Day. The movement spread from town to town and eventual became what we know as Memorial Day.

I recently read words penned by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which, to me, best illustrate the significance of those early Decoration Day activities:
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.

Maybe it was Longfellow’s words churning in my head that caused my restlessness. Or, maybe it was being out of my normal routine, and in this deployed location, which was causing me to think hard on what Memorial Day means. Whatever it was, this Memorial Day was different.

This Memorial Day, I wouldn’t be in full service dress rotely documenting the various activities on the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, and then heading off to man a grill and a cooler. This Memorial Day I would be in my desert camouflage uniform in the sands of this far away land. As I record the Memorial Day activities in this place, I’ll take the time to reflect on Longfellow’s words. And I’ll take the time to stop what I’m doing and join my brothers and sisters in arms as we smartly salute the memory of the spilled blood used to pay for and secure the freedoms we hold so dear.


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