Today is a day we set aside to honor and remember those who have died in service to this country of ours, our beautiful and deeply flawed America. I don’t really think of myself as coming from a military family, but just a moment’s reflection proves me wrong. My Dad served in the Army. My nephew recently served in Afghanistan with the Marines. Two uncles and a cousin were naval officers, another uncle a sailor. And a couple of cousins proudly served in the Air Force.
None of my relatives have died in service, which are those folks we honor today. We have been lucky when others have not.
Driving through the small town of Cary to visit our daughter’s grave this afternoon, we passed a field of flags, flapping in the wind. It was a beautiful sight, honestly, reminding me of the significance this day holds for so many other grieving mothers. I made a mental note as we passed, that perhaps we could spend a few moments there on our return trip home, introduce our boys to the significance of the day.
What a glorious day it was. Warm, bright, crisp light, big puffy clouds. My heart felt full, both from being with our girl, and seeing that rolling field of flags, dancing in the wind. I have some fairly complicated feelings about America these days, but seeing those flags didn’t feel complicated at all.
Walking in between the rows, I noticed that each flag had a tag. When you turned it around, it carried a name, age, hometown, branch of service, and date of death. That peaceful field of flags instantly became more potent to me. I should have realized, of course, that an installation of flags on Memorial Day would honor those who have died, but something about seeing the names and ages of so many young men was visceral.
Their dates of death were not so long ago — 2008, 2009, 2010. All of these young men from Illinois towns like Skokie, Crystal Lake, West Chicago, Effingham. You look at a tag, then look up to see this sea of flags, each with their own tag, their own soldier or Marine, their own date of death, their own sorrow.
I noticed a man walking through the rows, looking at the tags, photographing some of them. We criss-crossed a couple of times until we were on the same row, me just a flag ahead of him. I stepped aside so he could pass me, and he apologized, saying he would get out of my way. We smiled.
As we walked along, I think I said something about the tags. The man told me that he was taking photos of the soldiers he knew. Ouch. He went on to say that he was a biker and volunteered to meet and handle the caskets when they are flown in to the local airport, be with the families as their sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, return home in a casket.
I paused, listening, and my eyes welled up. The man paused too, his eyes welled up, and he said, “I’m a biker and we give hugs. Can I give you a hug?” Yes, please, kind stranger. I thanked him for being there for these men and their families in that way. Not everyone could do that. He told me his friends called him “Matter.” I heard “Madder,” which kind of made sense, for a biker who honors lost soldiers, but he kindly corrected me.
In just a few minutes, Matter and I connected. I shared that as a young woman I had trained at Chicago’s VA hospital, in their PTSD Clinic, listening to stories of Vietnam veterans who survived, but were deeply troubled, that woke me up and humbled me. While I don’t connect frequently with military culture, I maintain a deep respect for what men and women in the military provide, their service and sacrifice.
Matter told me a little bit more about his volunteering and the flags themselves. They are raised in the spot every Memorial Day, as a remembrance of those veterans killed in the “War on Global Terrorism” as he called it, and honor the 300+ Illinois soldiers and Marines who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Matter told me that five have been added this year.
“Did you know that soldiers who die in service die twice?,” Matter asked. “They die once on the field, but they die a second time when people stop saying their name. That’s why we’re here, why we do this.” He went on to tell me that every hour, the names of the dead are read and a bell is rung for each veteran.
I know how important it is to keep saying the name of those who go before us. Feeling close to him, I shared with Matter that we had just visited the grave of our girl, that I know the importance of saying the names, and offered up Donna’s name. He said it back to me and we shared another tear and another hug.
Tonight I feel grateful for folks like Matter. And I can’t tell you how good it felt to connect with another American who very possibly embraces politics that are different from my own, but has shared values and humanity.
Matter showed me what matters this Memorial Day.
The group that Matter volunteers with is the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois. You can visit their website or donate to their efforts to bring “vintage veterans” to Washington, D.C. HERE.
Addendum: Matter reached out to me after this was published to clarify that he was not a veteran himself, as I had written. All apologies on my behalf to Matter — I made an assumption. He calls himself a patriot and works to improve the lives of veterans and their families.