At an entrance to the World War II Memorial, a lone man cut a solemn figure as he balanced an iPad in one hand, a cane in the other, to film 12 bronze panels depicting the lives of soldiers during the war.
“The price of freedom is here. There is always a cost, sometimes a high cost,” said Victor Gaines. He turned to face the center of the expansive monument, gazing at the stonework marking the war’s different theaters and the American states that took part in it.
Gaines had never been to Washington before. But he has been to Iraq, and has served his country in the Army for more than 22 years; he currently is stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.
“I wanted to come here and personally thank them for their service,” he said of the men and women who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Gaines said serving his country cost him comrades in Iraq, time away from his family, and his own health, “but I did what I thought was right, I did what I felt I had to do. I would do it all again for my country.”
Pointing to a wall of gold stars representing the number of Americans killed during World War II, he added: “They gave their all, for all of us.”
Tomorrow, families, friends and neighbors will gather for picnics, baseball games and parades, many with barely a passing thought of what Memorial Day represents.
Formerly known as Decoration Day, the holiday began after the Civil War as a time to honor the soldiers who served and protected our country and to decorate their graves with flags, wreaths and flowers.
Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo has served in the Army for 34 years and commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now the commandant of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., he said his desire to stay in the Army began with his first platoon assignment. There, he discovered all that is America: “Every race and creed imaginable, and the only thing that mattered was that you could do your job and you could be counted on in a tight spot.”
“I stayed in (the Army) because the sound of taps at 2300 hours brought me comfort, and the sound of taps at a memorial ceremony choked me up,” he said.
“We have never done enough for those who have served this country,” said Donald McIlrath, a Korean War veteran from Penn Hills who came to Washington with three busloads of mostly World War II veterans from Western Pennsylvania.
McIlrath, 80, said no one thanked him and the men he served with in Korea when they returned home. But several groups of young people touring the World War II Memorial with teachers or parents came up to him and his fellow vets, to praise them for their service.
The retired Bell Telephone employee was one of three brothers who fought in Korea; he was motivated to join the Army, he said, when childhood friend Leonard Williams died in a Korean POW camp.
Maj. Gen. Cucolo said that each time he has served away from home, he has been reminded of how proud he is to be an American and a soldier — “Someone who has a stake in protecting the ideals that most of the world wants, and some of the world wants to crush.”
“In the history of this young country of ours, whenever she was in grave peril, there was always a core group of men and women — American soldiers in uniform, trained, ready, small in number but dedicated, tough and resolute — who would go in and fight,” he said.
That is who our military men and women are; they represent the 1 percent of the population that is willing to sacrifice, perhaps to sacrifice everything, to ensure that America lives on.
“Freedom is never free,” said Victor Gaines, that Fort Hood soldier visiting the World War II Memorial for the first time.
The heat of the day clearly caused him discomfort as he leaned on his cane to walk away from the memorial, with tears streaming down his face.