A Tribute to Those Who Did


RU staffer Don Bowman photographs a marker before placing a wreath on a grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

Don Bowman is a Radford University staff writer. This essay is his personal reflection on America's debt of gratitude to its military veterans.

On the first Saturday of December in recent years, two friends and I went to Arlington and placed wreaths on the graves at Arlington National Cemetery. For me, this is a simple yet powerful symbolic act by which I honor the legacy of those who served—those who did.

I did not. In 1972, when I turned 18 and became eligible for the draft, serving in the military was not an option I considered. I did not have to serve. I did not want to. Forty years later, as I walk through the rows upon rows of markers in Arlington, I reflect on those who did.

Each time I place a wreath on the grave of a veteran in Arlington, I am awed. I am also curious. Each time I visit the rows of markers—the simple, traditional ones or the older, more grandiose ones—I wonder about the individual veterans and myself.

Among the soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors who served in the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both world wars, Korea, Vietnam and the latest Middle East actions are presidents and Supreme Court justices, generals and admirals, recipients of Medals of Honor or Bronze Stars or Navy Crosses, writers, celebrities, coal heavers, teamsters, nurses and cook's helpers.

I am touched by each marker's quiet dignity and mystery. What wonders did these men and women see and do? What hells did they endure? What challenges did they overcome? What price did they pay? And, of course, could I have done that?

My dad, my uncles, my grandfather, a nephew and a stepson have all served. A nephew and granddaughter are considering military service. They all merit or perhaps will merit a resting place in this hallowed ground or in one of others like it across the country.

I am but a visitor. My ancestors earned the honors of this mysterious, powerfully moving place with their service. They and their brothers and sisters in arms, now resting in this hauntingly beautiful former plantation overlooking the capitol of my country, endured training and submitted to a level of discipline I cannot imagine. They shipped out to the far reaches, sacrificed comforts I take for granted and suffered to a degree I will never know. They pushed themselves and were pushed beyond limits that beggar my imagination.

To those who went before me and paid my debt forward, thank you.

To this nation that these men and women served so honorably, please treat their memory just as honorably.

To those who follow, the heirs of the men and women whose monuments I see in Arlington, may God bless and keep you.