Joe Alston, the man who spoke these words, was sitting beside me on a stone wall at the Air Force Memorial in Washington, D.C. It’s where our World War II and Korean War veterans eat the box lunches that Honor Flight Savannah provides them during a tour of their war memorials. Joe fought in Korea in the 1950s. The horrors he endured still haunt him, 60 years later.
The particulars of his experience are not for me to repeat, but his nagging guilt feeds in dark, bloody, unspeakable depths. Perhaps in telling his story, he hopes for healing. Laying it all out before non-judgmental eyes eases the torment sometimes.
The day had begun with a tour of the World War II Memorial, where three Generals and one Admiral greeted our Veterans. This trip marked the first time that a Marine general, Dave Papak, had been among them. As the officers mingled with our veterans, a high school band, which had set up nearby, launched into the Marines Corps Hymn. Brig. Gen. Papak immediately ceased talking and stood rigidly at attention facing the band. The Marine veterans in our group straightened the spines of their bent, shrunken bodies, thumbs aligned with their trouser seams, and held attention behind their General.
IN THE EARLY afternoon, we visited the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery. Maj. Gen. Tom Vandal stood at the curb as our bus pulled up, waiting to shake the hands of men whose heads still house the echoes of long-ago battlefields. As he approached a veteran in a wheelchair, the man could not be stopped from struggling to his feet to return the general’s handshake. The veterans know he understands what they have suffered.
When we disembarked to visit the Korean and Viet Nam memorials, I asked Joe if I could take his picture in front of the Korean Memorial.
“Are you intoxicated?” he asked, displaying the wonder we often encounter in these men when we honor their valor. But he posed willingly before the group of haunting figures, this man who still “flips” now and then when memories spill over the rim of present-day reality.
The tour was almost over so I chose to linger at this stop, letting the bus go on without me. A friend, Doug Magruder, had sent me an email before I left for the Honor Flight trip. When Doug’s platoon was ambushed in Viet Nam, five men had been killed. He had sent me the panel and line numbers on the Viet Nam Memorial so that I could find their names. With slips of paper and a soft pencil I made crude rubbings, hoping that mine were not the only stranger’s hands that had trailed across the rough surface of their short lives.
THE NEXT MORNING I awoke to a press release from Afghanistan: two more troops killed in action. Afghanistan, where Alexander the Great once roared in battle. Such a persistent business, war.
The Earth revolves day after day, patient, ever hopeful, heaving her weary mass by degrees toward the life-giving sun. If on her breast, nation will ever rise against nation, maybe the best we can do is to imitate her: listening, healing, and, most of all, loving her war-scarred children.
Carol Megathlin of Savannah is a University of Georgia graduate and the retired public-information officer for the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.