CLACKAMAS, Oregon – This was supposed to be an easy assignment. As a Marine Corps Fallujah veteran, now a photojournalist for the Oregon Air National Guard, it was my first time at a Memorial Day ceremony. And to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much.
Pageantry, maybe a few overly patriotic Lee Greenwood songs, some pleasantries and the photographs I planned to shoot. Then the rain began; a steady sheet of water, unrelenting, as I headed up to the highest point of the grounds with a camera in tow at Willamette National Cemetery. The band crescendos, playing a John Philip Sousa march and I realized I was marching in step to the music.
I made a decision to let down my guard and to truly engage in a drenched uniform, in this hallowed ground and talk to as many veterans as possible across multiple generational lines. I wanted to learn why they were here when they could be taking the day off, firing up the BBQ or kicking their feet up. Why here and why now?
As the ceremonies began and the downpour lifted on the rolling hills of Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Oregon, a different feeling emerged, something unexpected.
I became one of them; a Vietnam veteran, a Gulf War warrior in desert BDUs, running up the beaches of the Pacific in WWII. The campaigns stretched across the globe and across decades defined by skirmishes and confrontation.
When the battle banners had been rolled up and put away in storage after weathered boots and uniforms were put into bins, discarded or forgotten. One element remained: brotherhood.
There was just an understanding that was unwritten but seen in the weary eyes that had seen too much. Battle after battle, survivors of multiple wars and eras were here, standing at attention, duty surpassed any injury or remnant of injustice.
Eyes met that had seen the best and the worst of human nature. It was unwritten and the air was poignant.
Impoverished people; the eyes here had seen too much of that. Perhaps it was something I myself had seen during the long 24-hour shifts in the desert, somewhere in between combat and aggression there was tedious boredom, the unwrapping of rations, rifle cleanings and steady cadence of gallows humor that resonate even today.
Although all were welcome at this Memorial Day ceremony, the open arms of America have sometimes been crossed in more difficult times of political turmoil and unrest.
“I’m out here today because in 1968 when I got out, there was no crowd like this saying hello or goodbye. This cemetery was a mess in 1968; nobody was taking care of it. It was slipshod, it was muddy, and it was muddy trails. When that started to change, when Iraq and the War on Terrorism all started, the cemetery changed during that time too,” said Jim Pernetti, Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran and now a member of the 1st Marine Division Association.
That missing welcome left a mark across a generation of veterans, not always visible but somewhere beneath. Muddy trails were mended when a groundswell of support returned. In the case of our National Cemeteries, the solemn duty of funeral rights and the ceremony is often taken up by those lucky enough to survive the battle of time.
“So I come to pay my respects. I have brothers up here that are buried. With the 1st Marine Division Association, we do every Marine Corps Funeral that we can. So I spend a lot of time here.”
“Why do you come here on Memorial Day?” I asked.
“It’s way bigger than just me. It’s the camaraderie that we have as a group, and we’ll never let down another Marine or his family: ever. It’s important stuff.”
No Marine left behind. A hero’s welcome offered at the final resting place with respect freely given and acknowledgements made. For those still serving, the memory is carried, sometimes through a family connection that’s passed on through generations.
“This celebration is really about freedom and about respect for all those who died for us. Even my Great Uncle, he’s buried here and served many years in WWII, even if he didn’t talk about it over the years. Just respect for all Airmen and Soldiers who fought over there,” said Tech Sergeant Doug Martsolf of the Oregon Air National Guard’s 142nd Maintenance Squadron.
Families and military supporters were here. They wore American flag shirts, camouflage, cowboy hats, and kids on laps, handing out sunflowers as tokens to those with ties to family members who had served. Motorcycle engines roared in as leather-vested veterans pulled in to pay their respects.
“It’s amazing because there’s so much pageantry and recognition of our veterans here and gone. We come every year we can and help out the veterans. It’s a big thing we look forward to every year,” said Diane Wheatley, Oregon State Curator for the Oregon State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution.
Through the ceremony and fanfare, often dubbed “the dog and pony show,” in jocular enlisted language, some here longed merely for a viable excuse to stand shoulder to shoulder with others who served, if just for a moment in time, whether living or gone.
Specialist Peter Jubitz from Alpha Battery, 218th Field Artillery Regiment, Oregon Army National Guard said, “I think it’s pretty important to be here. There are a lot of people who have lost family members and loved ones. I have a relative here as well. One of our sergeants was saying that during the Vietnam War, a lot of Vet’s didn’t get a good welcome back, so this means a lot for them. We just want to respect and honor them.”
As I approached and asked for a photograph, two veterans who had never met before, from the Marine Corps and the Army, glued together for a photograph, their smiling faces spanned across the two branches of service.
WWII veterans came to pay their respects and I was fortunate enough to hear the story of one who survived the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater of World War II on the Island of Okinawa.
“I got clear up to the rank of PFC before I got shot during the battle of Okinawa. That’s when he got it. No more on the line than 5 minutes and my buddy got shot. We landed on the beach but the beaches were secure by then. The Japanese spent two years so that they could defend every bit of that island, no matter where you were, they had it covered. They let everybody get off the landing craft, on the beach. As soon as they got on the beach, then, they opened up,” said PFC Don Hoyt.
To be honest, I didn’t think my experience in Iraq had much in common with other veterans groups. There were different locales, new technology and different age and time. But on this Memorial Day, I felt something deeper, which hadn’t been expressed before; through the lens of a camera and through the stories we shared as fellow service members.
|Date Posted:||06.11.2019 00:03|
|Location:||CLACKAMAS, OR, US|