This past summer, on Armed Forces Day, Caity Stuart had a profound encounter with a veteran who was visiting the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. In honor of Veteran’s Day, we asked her to share that story. — Editors
The more and more I work here at the park, I continually find myself shoved between the dichotomy of wanting to share my anti-war sentiments while also desiring to display my appreciation for the sacrifice of veterans and current armed services.
It isn’t easy.
How does a pacifist tell the story of battle to both peace-lovers and war-mongers alike, day after day?
I have to admit, when Armed Forces Day rolled around last summer, I had forgotten the day until I walked into work. When I asked people if they were familiar with the occasion, no one could give me a definitive “yes.”
Except for one individual.
As our 12:30p film was finishing, at about ten ’til 1:00, I walked to the doors of the auditorium to pry them open. As I was lodging the wooden door stop at the base of one of the doors, an older gentlemen came up to me with angst in his step.
“Where can I find the flags?” he asked in a hushed voice.
“Excuse me?” I replied, not clearly understanding what he was trying to say.
With tears beginning to well in his eyes and a quiver developing in his voice, he repeated his question. “Where are all of the flags? This simply isn’t enough.”
Quite beside himself at this point, he continued to explain to me that he was a Korean War Veteran who was 74 years old. He was not happy that, on Armed Forces Day, there were no flags to be found. Consoling him and suggesting that he take a look in our bookstore for a few flags, I led him and his wife to our gift shop.
The entire twenty yards from the Visitor Center to the bookstore, I led a tear-strucken veteran and his wife on a search to find 25-cent plastic flags.
Inside, with a display of flags in front of us and the description of their meanings shared between us, the old man continued his lamentation.
“This is not enough,” he managed between broken sobs. “There used to be parades. There are no more parades. If you ask a child today about all of this, they know nothing.” As the tears continued to roll down his cheeks and past his soggy nose, he declared that every politician should visit Gettysburg to truly understand the essence of their job.
Close to uncontrollable weeping by this point, I began to thank him—for not only his service, but also for his conviction. “It is up to you to help us remember,” I said. “To tell us these stories so that we can turn around and be eternally grateful for the sacrifice you have given us.”
His wife chimed into the conversation, adding that they had a son-in-law who had died in Desert Storm; they had lost four members of their family, total, to warfare in the past 30 years.
On the verge of a wail, he added with a shake of the head: “It’s not fair.”
After adding a few additional thank-yous to the conversation, he then looked up at me with changed eyes.
“What do you do here?” he asked.
Deeply moved by our encounter, I simply replied, “I tell stories.”
The old soldier was pleased.
With the tears and nose debris wiped clean of his face, I solemnly walked back to the visitor center with his card in hand.
But on days like that, through encounters like that, I can’t help but be compelled to tell these stories better—to delve even deeper into the events that occurred here on these battlefields and to bring life and honor to those who fought, regardless of their convictions.
Because, for this Korean War Veteran, his entire life revolves around the moment he chose to put his life on the line for another.
Where are all the flags? In the stores waiting for us to pick them up. In the stories waiting for us to tell them.