Washington: It was a day of respect, but also of avoidance.
Nate Barn, who volunteered to fight 50 years ago, stood in the mist Monday near the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial, momentarily overwhelmed by memories of that war, the malaria he contracted, the hostility he faced coming home and his wife’s passing last year.
“It’s starting to bring up some issues,” said the 68-year-old retired Marine from Columbia, Maryland. “I couldn’t walk by the wall.”
For a quiet moment, he said, he wanted to tamp down the parallels that keep creeping up between the way his country was divided then, and the way he sees it being torn apart today, “from the president all the way down.”
But he was buoyed on Memorial Day, when he saw an outpouring of support for veterans and a reverence for painful memories, along with the usual smiling selfie-shooters and tourists on scooters.
“You see this turnout in gloomy weather. It’s amazing. It makes you feel good,” Barn said.
The day was filled with private moments and public expressions of gratitude. Three Americans who stopped a terrorist attack on a train headed for Paris — Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler — were on hand for a Memorial Day parade along Washington’s Constitution Avenue NW.
President Donald Trump placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, then climbed the stairs to an amphitheatre at Arlington National Cemetery. He spoke to a crowd of hundreds, including former US Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, and Ray Chavez, the oldest living survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and asked God to comfort the parents, children, husbands and wives of those who have been lost.
“We mourn alongside their families and we strive to be worthy of their sacrifice,” Trump said. The president also spoke of Arlington’s sacred soil. “Each of the markers on that field, each of the names engraved in stone, teach us what it means to be loyal and faithful and proud and brave and righteous and true.”
Earlier, the president tweeted: “Those who died for our great country would be very happy and proud at how well our country is doing today.”
At the Second World War Memorial, between churning fountains and a wall of gold stars commemorating the more than 400,000 Americans who died, JoAnn Buckley came to honour her father, who stepped into the frigid waters and the brutal fight at Normandy in 1944. He lived.
“I feel a lot of gratitude, a lot of sadness,” Buckley said. “He never wanted to talk about it. My mom said he had terrible nightmares. He never complained either.”
Her father’s lungs did not recover from the battle, and he lived much of his life in ill health, unable to join Buckley and her husband, Raynor Buckley, an Air Force veteran, when they visited Normandy along with Raynor’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students.
Raynor’s father also served in Second World War. The two US servicemen met their wives while stationed in Europe.
“My dad married a Belgian girl. We’re all products of World War II,” JoAnn Buckley said.
“All built from foreign parts,” said Raynor, whose father and mother fell in love in England.
In the afternoon, as the parade marched past the Washington Monument to the strains of the national anthem and This Land is Your Land, there was a mix of three-day weekend commercialism, soft-serve-eating kids and weighty remembrance. A six-ton “potato” rolled by on a semi-tractor-trailer sponsored by the Idaho Potato Commission, a state agency.
“Made in the USA!” chanted one of the reps. “Eat more potatoes!”
When elderly Korean War veterans drove by in ageing jeeps, carrying American and Korean flags, spectator Soyoung Pilcher, a biomedical engineering student from the University of Central Oklahoma, called out with a simple: “Thank you.”
“It’s a good spirit,” Pilcher said. “We’re all celebrating one thing.”
Chris Isleib roared out a warm yell of approval as a group of Vietnam veterans inched down the route. He’s working with the United States World War I Centennial Commission to build a monument to that conflict in the nation’s capital, in part to make sure young people have a chance to look back at their history.
“You’ve got to at least offer it,” Isleib said. “Every generation is looking for stories.”
Down Constitution, those who lived to share those stories thought about those who did not.
“I came back because I can’t ever forget that day,” said Fred Churchill, 76, of Vienna, Virginia, after emerging from the Vietnam Memorial. “Those guys should have been able to come visit this thing too.”
The retired Navy officer had just gone to bed on the USS Oriskany in October, 1966, when stacks of parachute flares used to light up bombing targets in Vietnam burst into flames on the ship, killing 44 Americans. “Fires don’t discriminate,” Churchill said.
Left alongside the engraved black wall were tiny flags, carnations and a Ziplock bag of popcorn. There was also a photograph of Cpl. Joseph Lyons, killed in action in June 1968.
“Daddy, you make the stars shine bright,” read the message in black marker. “I love you and miss you!”