This is my second trip to D.C. with a group of eighth graders. We are being escorted by a wonderful guide. HM and I bonded the first year we were together and I refuse to have any other guide but her. She is simply amazing! She has to be the strongest woman I know and she is my hero.
At this moment we are on our way to the Iwo Jima Memorial. It is a personal favorite of mine. I love the memorial and the story behind it. A victory for our nation, but also a victory for the men who fought a battle against an enemy they couldn't see. A victory that seemed near impossible to win.
As we get closer to the monument, HM hands out six cards to six different students and asks them to read aloud what is on each of the cards. As each student reads from her card the bus becomes quiet. The voices of the chosen readers sing out:
Sgt. Mike Strank - gave the orders to find a pole, attach the flag and "put'er up!" He was killed March 1, 1945 on Mount Suribachi when he was hit by a mortar. Sgt. Strank is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Freedom isn't Free.
Harlon Block - was Sgt. Strank's second-in-command. He took over the leadership of his unit when the Sgt. Mike was killed. Harlon was killed just hours later at the age of 21. Harlon is buried beside the Iwo Jima Monument in Harlingen, Texas. Freedom isn't Free.
Franklin Sousley - enlisted at 17 and sailed for the Pacific on his 18th birthday. Franklin died on Iwo Jima on March 21rst. He was 19. Franklin is buried at Elizaville Cemetery, Kentucky. Freedom isn't Free.
Ira Hayes - was a Pima Indian. Ira was a dedicated Marine who was admired by his fellow Marines. He died at the age of 32 from alcoholism. Freedom isn't Free.
Rene Gagnon -was the soldier who carried the flag up Mt. Suribachi. He was the first survivor to arrive back in the US. Rene was modest about his achievement throughout his life. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Freedom isn't Free.
John Bradley was a Navy Corpsmen and won the Navy Cross for heroism. He never thought of himself as a hero and led an intensely private life. He died in 1994 leaving a wife of 47 years and eight children. Freedom isn't Free.
As I watch the faces of my boys and girls, I know they have understood the graveness of the words and the meaning behind them. All is quiet and reverent as the words are being read. As the final card is being related to those around her, the young lady stumbles over the words and a nervous giggle escapes her.
HM jumps as if a her body has been jolted with a current of electricity. Her head snaps toward the young lady and she gasps in a low desperate voice, "Do you think that is funny? Do you think freedom is free? Well let me tell you something, it isn't!" And she turns away from the young girl, her face ashen.
There is an awkward silence on the bus. A tension so thick and palatable no one dares move. The kids do not understand what has just happened. The little girl doesn't know what she has done. I however do. And it isn't her fault. She could not have known. It is not the time to talk about it. We need to wait. So we make the rest of the trip in silence letting what has just happened toil in our minds.
Before HM exits at her stop that evening, she and I talked about the next day's schedule. Arlington National Cemetery is on the event list. There is planning to do. There will be a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Two of our students have relatives buried in the cemetery and we want to locate those grave sites for them. That will take some coordinating. We also will visit the Faces of the Fallen exhibit. HM will not go there with us this year either.
Arlington is a difficult place to be in peace time...HM and I discuss what it may be like now that our country is at war and how to prepare our children. We also talk about how I am to prepare for one other thing:
Lucy: HM I will tell the students about Shane when you get off the bus tonight. Is that okay with you?
Hm: Yes...but please use his name. I want people to remember his name.
HM's Shane...her only son. The father of her two grandchildren. The light of her life. The son who left for his second tour of Iraq and never came back. This is never easy for us. Two mothers having a conversation about a dead child. The pain we both feel is overwhelming. I hurt for her... although I can see she is better than last year.
Last year...he has been dead less than three weeks and buried less than two and she was taking a tour of eighth graders around D.C. I don't know where she got the strength to do it. But she did and she did it with grace and dignity and she did it with a smile most of the time. She walked that cemetery with us and stood in front of those graves after just burying her child...and when I asked her how she did it she said, "why my Shane would have wanted me to. He would not have wanted me to sit and cry and do nothing. I do it for him." That is why she is my hero.
So HM left the bus and I asked the kids if they might listen to me for a moment and I took them back to the afternoon's event:
"Courtney, when you were reading about your soldier today and you messed up and giggled, were you confused when HM got upset with you?" She just nodded. "I need to explain something to you all. You all know tomorrow we are going to go to Arlington National Cemetery and you all know that this is a place of respect and reverence right?" More nods. "No horsing around, decent clothes, respectful behavior, no loud voices. You know how to behave. Break these rules and there will be serious consequences. This is not the place to screw up!" Eyes are wide at this point.
With that all said, back to HM. Remember what it said at the end of each card? Freedom isn't Free. HM has paid the ultimate price for freedom, she gave up her only son. Her son Shane, she wants you to remember his name. Shane went to Iraq and was killed just one year ago. He left behind his parents, a sister, a wife and two very young children. So you can see why HM got so upset when she thought you were laughing at that phrase, because she paid dearly for our freedom."
I am crying, as are most of the students. They finally understand her reaction and are okay with what happened. They ask me questions. Some I can answer and some I can't. They want to know how he died. I tell them maybe HM will talk to them about Shane in the morning. I don't know if she will. I don't know if she is that strong yet.
The morning arrives and we load the bus. The kids are reserved. It seems many have thought about HM and her son. They are still curious and wonder if she will talk about him. We travel to the prearranged pick-up site and HM boards our bus. She is all smiles as usual. Today she is wearing Shane's dog tags and her Gold Star Mother's pin. The kids notice immediately. I tell her I have spoken with them and they would like her to tell them more about Shane.
She stands and takes the microphone in her hand and tries to begin. But before words can form in her mouth she sits back down and hands the microphone to me. Instantly, tears are falling on her cheeks and she puts her hand over her mouth, 'I can't', the words come out in a whisper. I explain to the kids that she is unable to talk of him...it is too painful. There are cheeks damp with tears elsewhere on the bus as well.
Arlington...how does one talk about one of the most sacred places in the United States? I have been here three times and every time it has been different. This time however is by far the most profound. It will forever, I believe, be burned in the memory of 48 young minds for the rest of their lives. It is also, I believe, the moment in their lives they really came to believe that Freedom isn't Free.
Imagine if you can, 48 young men and women walking along the road of the beautiful National Cemetery, single file with the symmetry of white headstones to the right and left of them for as far as the eye can see. In the distance, coming toward them is a horse pulling a caisson with a flag draped casket, full military honor guard, people walking to the rear of the caisson and a black limousine. The tour guide, who has buried her son with full military honors just a year ago, will be the first to meet the funeral procession as it stops just feet away from the group of students.
We have just become participants in the funeral of a fallen soldier. We stand there while the family leaves the limo and walks up the hill to the grave site. I hold HM as the salt of her soul cascades like a waterfall down her face and her legs grow weak beneath her. She growls through clenched teeth, "I need this like I need a damn hole in my head." But she stands there and watches with rapt attention and respect as another buries a son or daughter.
I am aware of my kids and wonder what must be going through their minds. We all listen as the minister speaks his words of comfort to the family. We stand completely still as the flag is removed from the coffin, snapped and folded with precision and care and handed to a woman in the front row. Who is she? The mother, wife...and then we are dismissed to continue on our way...like nothing has just happened.
I am too stunned to speak. My kids are too stunned to say anything. Again there are tears. We are not too far down the road before we are startled by gunfire. Again, there are no words. We all know what it means. Freedom isn't Free...they have seen it first hand. I can't help but to believe they are forever changed by what they have witnessed. I know I am.
Our trip comes to an end after our day in Arlington. It is time to bid our dear sweet guide farewell. She has made a lasting impression on us all. For us, she is living proof of the sacrifice one family has made for our country. She carries her sacrifice with dignity and grace and we all thanked not only for her time with us but for her son....her Shane. She is humbled and leaves us in tears. It has been a very emotional day for us all.
We begin our journey back home. As I am trying to process what has happened on this day with my students, what they have seen, what they have heard, what they have been part of...we talk of heroes, we talk of our freedom, we talk of our great country and the attacks of 911 and the sacrifices our men and women in uniform are currently making...Our driver hearing our conversations and stories has an idea. "You know we go right past the exit to Shanksville...it is only about an hour off the highway." I respond with, "Are you suggesting we visit the Flight 93 crash site?" "Yea," he says, 'It would put us home a little late but not too bad."
Doesn't take me long to decide we are going on a detour. What better way to wrap up this trip than to take these kids to another one of the greatest memorials in the history of the United States. Another place to drive home the idea that Freedom isn't Free. A place where they can learn that heroes are not just those who wear uniforms. A place where more life long memories are made.
We arrive before just before the sun begins to set. There is no one else there. 48 students exit a bus without a sound. It is eerily quiet. They scatter in different directions looking at the plaques, stones and memorabilia left by the thousands that have visited. Some take pictures, others just stand and stare out toward the tree lined field.
The scars on the land have healed. The grass is green and the trees are full of leaves. I imagine the fire and the wreckage as it must have looked on that day. I wonder who I would have called had it been me at the window of the small farmhouse on the hill. I wonder what it must have sounded like. How helpless I would have felt. I pose these thoughts to some of the kids. They just stare ahead.
I have to remind myself...they were only seven when it happened. Most of them second graders. I then wonder what they remember of that fateful day. Did they have a clue of how their world would change? Did they even realize what their world was like before 911? How different we are now was the thought that ran through my mind.
I am dazed with my thoughts when a young lady interrupts me, "do you have a marker? We want to write something on the guardrail." We find one. They go to work. When they have completed their thought they stand back and show me what they have done...it is at this point I know I have done my job. This has not been just another eighth grade trip to Washington D.C it has been a life lesson...a lesson that will stay with them forever. For this is what they wrote:
911 DO NOT EVER FORGET!
HONOR THOSE WHO DIED!
HONOR THOSE WHO FIGHT TO KEEP US FREE!