Letter to an Unknown Soldier

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Dear One,

I may have seen you a few years ago in the months before you left for war, walking with a child in your arms or crowded into a small fast car with others like you, music blaring, tattoos fresh. I may see you this week as we both wait for our food orders at the local Baja Fresh.

I have probably been close enough to shake your hand but I never have.

I see your face reflected in the photographs lined up in the obituary pages of our newspaper each week.

I see your eyes looking out of each one but you remain unknown to me.

I may have seen your mother’s face yesterday in the grocery store as she shopped for one less mouth to feed at the family gathering, or your sister’s face when she placed a vase of flowers at your grave in the national cemetery near my home.

I saw them but never knew.

When I was a 21-year-old newspaper reporter, my first job assignment was to cover the Memorial Day Parade in Rockport, Massachusetts. I snapped photographs of men with creased faces in uniforms brushed clean as they placed wreaths, spoke words and then went silent as they remembered you.

I saw all this too and could not know what was in their memories or their hearts.

I can never know. I only know a life that comes with never having had to face the choices you have made or that were made for you.

It has been all too easy not to know you.

I have lived all my life behind the shield created for me by my age, luck, family, timing, the country into which I was born. In this country now, there are those who go to war and those who can remain behind. Those who know what it costs and those of us who believe we know, who try to imagine but can’t. We’ve never been there. We’ve never lost a child or a husband or a mother or a sister or a brother or a friend to enemy fire. There are those who, inspired by attacks like the ones on 9/11, rushed to join and to help and put their lives at risk. There are those of us who, made afraid by these same attacks, let you. We asked it, maybe not out loud but with our actions, or our inaction.

In every generation, in every country of the world, there have been people like you and people like me. There have been warriors who die instantly from their wounds on the battlefield and those who die years later of injuries no one can see or understand. There have been families who have had to face sudden and devastating loss and those who witness the loss of their loved one as it plays out over months and years. There are those who never know what happened to the ones they have lost.

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And then there are people like me who lose sight of all these casualties simply because we can. We can lose ourselves in our dreams, our plans, in Memorial Day sales, and food and in the families who have not been altered forever by war.

I learned this week that a moment of silence has long been part of a the right way to observe Memorial Day. At  3 p.m., all across the country, people will be silent and will acknowledge you and honor you or simply fall silent and let themselves feel that your death is our loss. Today, at 3 p.m. Pacific time, I will be thinking of you and I will be thinking of those you faced and fought who have also suffered and died.

I still won’t know you but I will wish I had. And I hope that taking that moment will lead me to a deeper acknowledgment of what I ask of you and to give more to you and to those who love you.

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The photos above were taken yesterday at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego where thousands of military men and women and their families have been buried for more than a hundred years.

Here is a link to some numbers that I will be thinking about when I am silent today at  3 p.m: US War Deaths