Because of my father, my family spends part of every Memorial Day at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
Captain John Thomas Greenplate (1954-2017) is buried there, and while he was not killed in action, he rests alongside many who did — and many more who would have, if they had been called upon to do so.
Dad was the son of a World War II veteran who survived the Battle of the Bulge. He was the younger brother of an Army combat engineer who served in Vietnam. Even though the Vietnam War was all but over by the time he graduated high school in 1972, it never sat right with him that he had not also put on a uniform.
Throughout my childhood, two things were sacred: God and country. There was no quicker way to anger Dad than to disrespect or dishonor either – a lesson my younger sister learned when she intentionally sang the national anthem off-key in exaggerated fashion. Dad very quietly asked her never to do that in his house again.
It wasn’t until he was 44 — and technically too old to serve – that he applied for an age waiver and got it, and took a direct commission into the U.S. Army Reserve just three months after I enlisted. He went to his officer training course the same summer that I went through Basic Combat Training, and he deployed to Afghanistan three years later.
Dad’s birthday was June 2nd, but he never had much interest in celebrating that. All of my life – both before and after his military service — he was more interested in celebrating Memorial Day, which often fell within a week of his birthday anyway. Now that he’s gone, it only seems fitting that we do so in his place.
So we go to the ceremony and we stand under the flag, flown at half staff to honor the dead – and we talk to the veterans who have come out to salute their brothers in arms. Uniform white grave stones stretch as far as the eye can see in every direction, every one of them a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who was willing to sacrifice everything for a greater cause.
It makes you feel small to stand in such a place — and then to be hit with the realization that this military cemetery is just one of many in the United States and all over the world.
Almost two years ago now, I stood with my son in the middle of the Henri-Chapelle American Military Cemetery in Plombieres, Belgium – and the feeling was the same. The silence surrounded us even when crowds of people were present. White marble crosses stretched as far as the eye could see. Most included the name and unit of the fallen soldier, but some simply read, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”
We spend this day remembering those who fell so that we who remain can stand tall — and although it is fitting to mourn those we may have personally lost, it is also fitting to remember the words of the late General George S. Patton Jr.: “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”
Thank God that such men lived, indeed. It’s because they did that we do.
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