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Mary Alice Altorfer: These Were the Rough Men who Stood Ready in the Night

On Memorial Day, we swell with pride even as we stand fast through the pain

Dedicated to my mother, Sgt. Mildred Arnold, U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, World War II. She remains a Marine at heart.

Songbirds greeted the sunrise as if that big, yellow orb depended upon their throaty reveille. Tiny, winged creatures, whose proximity to heaven assured them an audience, sang like angels until darkness shrank from the sun’s warmth.

Their morning melody hushed, the songbirds watched from trees that stand as sentries to the sprawling cemetery with its endless lawns and rows of white markers. The bones of young warriors rest beneath them: altruistic, patriotic, brave, yet, nonetheless, they are dead. The heat of battle cools quickly where grass stands taller than the inhabitants below it.

Flags abound on this morning, and soon enough, the sound of their rippling in the breeze shouts louder than the bustle of chairs and a podium being set up for Memorial Day.

Unfurled and broadly waving, the Stars and Stripes speaks for the men and women who cannot: voices who said yes to duty; voices who pleaded with God and their mothers to stop the pain; voices who cursed God to halt the killing and, who now, need the wind to be heard.

Eternity was not on their minds or in their hearts when they charged the Germans at Belleau Wood, counter-attacked the North Koreans at Pusan, hoisted the American flag on Mount Suribachi, held their terrain when it was slick with blood in the jungle-covered mountains near Dak To, or seized a machine gun and killed 50 Iraqi insurgents before slumping over dead in a turret hatch outside of Baghdad.

Their kind does not put boundaries on courage; it is innate to their character. From Lexington and Concord to Fallujah, this trait compels young men and women to exceed human expectations despite wretched conditions, brutal terrain and personal cost.

Bravery isn’t doled out in the chow line or at enlistment; the bravery gene remains dormant until needed. No chest thumping is necessary or even possible when checking for IEDs in Afghanistan or parachuting into gunfire over Normandy. Valor is the strength and determination to eclipse every reason to fail. A decision that often is as brash as it is brave. “Posthumously” is in the final script for many medals.

Memorial Day is the totality of war. It is a time when ceremonies recall the sacrifices and honor the lives lost in sustaining freedom. Selflessness is accorded its due with tears and speeches accompanying the continued ache of absence.

The crowd reflects the human price of freedom as parents weep for their children, spouses cling to pictures and babies while veterans come in wheelchairs, on prosthetic legs, for camaraderie and, always, with the need to be where flags are flown, and the plaintive sound of “Taps” plays to the fallen and to those who dampen the grass above their graves.

The military precision of white-gloved hands contrasts sharply against the muddied, bloodied deaths they salute. They prevail and a 21-gun salute startles the tranquility of a graveyard momentarily disturbed by the rancor of battle.

Fidelity, like courage, has no boundaries while the wind brushes across the podium and up against the visitors lifting their faces to the flags as they noisily snap to attention. A thousand, dark-eyed creatures perch in the trees, anxiously following these stirrings with their throats swelled for song. Waiting.

Tarnished buttons on moldy uniforms pull taut.

— Former Carpinteria resident Mary Alice Altorfer now lives in New Braunfels, Texas.

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