My wife and I had the opportunity to visit the “Boots on the Ground” memorial in Providence. This display is meant to honor the 6875 uniformed service members who have died since 9/11. It goes without saying, it was an incredibly sobering experience. The term ‘boots on the ground’ is often thrown out in public and political discourse when the subject of military action is being considered. That term makes it sound so inanimate and matter of fact, simply decisions to be made about resources and assets to be allocated. Until you walk through an exhibit like this.
As we walked row upon row, organized in alphabetical order and by state, we took the time to read the tags on the boots, which provided the names, branches of service, hometowns and summaries of their service. As I took the time to study each photo and read each name and their story, one thing became clear to me – THIS is America. The legacies of these heroic men and women are not defined by political ideology, electoral college results, ethnic identity, gender identity, primary language spoken, socioeconomic status, citizenship status, proliferation of Tweets or who yells the loudest at marches and rallies. If you want a sense of who we are as a nation, what really defines America, read these tags – all of them.
Having served in the military for eight years, I intuitively knew of the diversity among it ranks, but this was a visual reconnection to the wide swath of those who signed their names on the line to make the ultimate sacrifice for this country when and if called upon. And they were called upon. I saw white faces, black faces, brown faces, Hispanic surnames, Asian surnames, Native Americans, small towns, big towns, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, men, women, junior enlisted, senior officers, some U.S. citizens and some not.
We invest an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources debating and legislating who has the right to engage in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness on U.S. soil. As deafening as those voices can be at times, none speak as loudly as the ones from these boots, from beyond the grave. They are saying, “We are America. Honor our memory by not losing sight of this American experiment we all died for.” Regardless of how you feel about the military or war, none of us has earned the right to define who we are as a country more than those who have given all for the daily freedoms we enjoy and far too often take for granted.
So, if we want to get crystal clarity about who truly belongs in this country and who we are as Americans, don’t turn on the TV, don’t take to the Internet or social media; take a walk through a military cemetery or memorial display. Look at the faces, read the names, learn their stories. Their now-silent voices couldn’t be more strident. If only we would listen.
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