The Steps of a Soldier
It's 40 degrees and the sky looks like snow.
We climb a hill and drive through the curving grounds of the Hot Springs VA, the veteran's town.
Today we're at another cemetery. It's nestled on a sloping green hill, surrounded by pines. There aren't very many people here, just a handful to put wreaths on the graves of those who've given. And it's the veteran's town? Where is everyone?
Actually, it's me who's thinking I can't believe I'm here when I wish I could be in bed, sleeping off the work week, getting away from people. It's me who got out of bed and hauled my camera out to a cemetery because my little brother looked disappointed when I said I wasn't coming. It's me who's selfish and I knew I should have worn warmer shoes.
And then the boys line up, straight blue uniforms of the Civil Air Patrol. The young, ruddy cheeked boys with strong steps and sharp turns, braving 40 degrees and wind with bits of snow.
They're holding the wreaths to be placed for every branch of the service, for the MIAs and the POWs. They've not seen war or watched their friends be killed, they've not yet had to think about their families oceans away from them, and what they're doing so far apart.
My brother is standing there, too. He's not crossed that threshold. And "the first casualty of war is innocence."
He reads the ceremony straight from a couple of pages. A large voice the wind cannot deafen. And one by one the cadets lay the wreaths in the arms of the veterans. Their strides are sure, corners neat and sharp, their heels clicking, their about-face swift. Their salutes these slow, sincere, unmistakable military "thank you's." They give this wholehearted embrace of . . . everything. Of life, of death, of duty and country. This long and practiced procedure that I can't help but feel this sorrowful bit of pride for. That I can't help crying for. Because I can see it, in every step they take.
The veterans--they take the wreaths and secure them on the stands. Their steps less sure, their corners less quick, and you can't hear the click of their heels, nor do they about-face as eagerly as the young. One man walks with a cane, and the frail, wobbling steps of the last man tells stories of the years that have been lived before you. But you cannot mistake the salutes and you cannot take it from them. That they're standing on a hill, and they know, and the world doesn't show up, but they're here regardless. The world may turn stagnant to praise of them, but there they will be, saluting the dead, dying for the living. You can't mistake the steps of a soldier.
My heart's this sagging lump inside as I see my brother with an arm full of wreaths, standing over graves, this straight and tall boy-man in a uniform. In all his sixteen-year-old glory he's saluting.