As the children of a military officer, we understood respect and dignity are due to those who give the promise of sacrifice for our security and safety. Our father rarely spoke, actually never spoke, of his time at war. Not in World War II, and not in Korea. He told the occasional story of pranks or misadventures for our amusement, like the time his younger brother, Bob, was given furlough from his ship in the Sea of Japan. He came ashore looking for our dad, who was just out of officers’ school with his first Lieutenant stripes. Bob found him in the barracks, running the crap game for the non-comms!
We knew Dad worked in the Army Corps of Engineers, building roads and bridges and airstrips so that our troops could deploy when and where needed around the world. We did not know his actions during wartime until his best friend and last commanding officer arrived in full dress uniform at our father’s funeral. Colonel Clausing stood beside the casket at Bushnell National Cemetary in 1994, saluting his friend as the bugle played and the rifles fired.
Colonel Clausing shared stories of the first time he served with our dad, in Korea. As combat engineers, they debugged minefields, crawling through freezing mud to create safe passage for troops. They built pontoon bridges over frigid rivers and, afterward, dis-assembled them to prevent the enemy from following. Dad never spoke of hardship, the risk of frostbite, the wet cigarettes that would not light, the lack of clean drinking water, the almost inedible k-rations. He did not speak of losing friends to enemy fire, of leading younger and greener men to their death.
The Korean War Memorial remains my favorite place on the National Mall. The Lincoln Memorial inspires. FDR’s monument of rooms allows for contemplation. The Jefferson Memorial provides the perfect spot for watching the sunset over the Potomac River. The Viet Nam Veterans’ Wall breaks my spirit, and I weep at the cost of war. The World War II Memorial offers scope and grandeur, a big gesture for a big war. But the heads-down figures in bronze slogging through the mud in Korea create an intimacy, a humanity that the other memorials lack. It’s not speeches and photo ops, the roar of jet fighters overhead, the bloom of parachutes in the sky when the air corps jumps, that make gratitude surge in my chest. It’s witnessing the everyday sacrifice of our veterans and our active-duty troops.
Thank you, Dad, and Colonel Clausing, and Uncle Bob, all other veterans known and unknown, and our current servicemen and women. Your everyday sacrifice ensures our everyday lives.