What will your kids remember about Memorial Day?
While Memorial Day is still weeks away, I hope to plant a seed in your mind now before you commit to the beach, pool or BBQ. You can indulge in the first leisure of summer, but with a little planning you can also meet your solemn obligation while teaching your teenagers and younger children a vital lesson of respect.
Memorial Day is not about veterans; it is about the ones who did not come home alive from war, never knew the joy of watching their children grow up. We have an obligation to remember them and to honor their sacrifice that makes our life of comfort and safety possible.
There is a man among us who knows a great deal about paying respects to our war dead. He is Peachtree City Police Department Corporal David High, School Resource Officer (SRO) at McIntosh High School. Officer High loves his job, where every day he makes himself visible in the hallways, classrooms and offices of the school, getting to know the teachers, staff, the 1,700 students and many of their parents.
As SRO, Officer High is always available to handle immediate problems, like a drug-related arrest, but he spends most of his time showing the students by his interaction with them that police are their partner, not their adversary.
He routinely slips into classrooms to spread his contact throughout the school, and knows he can find all the seniors in the government class where he likes to teach them selected points of the Constitution like, “This is what protects you from me!”
At left, Corp. David High, Peachtree Police Department. Photo/Special.
Officer High likes to establish contact with incoming freshmen and knows he can find them in the health class. He is also a frequent drop-in to drama classes where he delights students with a special skill he developed as a youth: he shows them how to use makeup to create a very convincing split lip, black eye, a deep bleeding gash or other illusions of trauma that fuel the enthusiasm of young actors.
In special ed classes, Officer High spends some quiet time with individual students who need the comfort of an adult friend to keep anxiety under control. Since students at McIntosh know they can trust him, he often covertly learns of escalating conflict so he can prevent trouble simply by showing up at the right time and place.
What he likes most about his SRO job is knowing the students well enough to recognize a youngster who needs a private word to nudge in the right direction, like, “Come on, man, you don’t want to do anything stupid and mess up your future! You’re smarter than that.”
My daughter is a student at McIntosh and I’m glad Officer David High is there in uniform every day. I also wish every student would appreciate the special role he played in honoring America’s fallen.
Before he became a police officer, David joined the U.S. Army with a deep desire to become an Airborne Ranger. After earning his Airborne wings at the Army Jump School at Ft. Benning, he was selected to join the elite 1st Battalion, 3rd US Infantry Regiment at Ft. Myer, in Arlington, Va., the oldest infantry regiment in the Army dating back to 1784.
It is commonly known as The Old Guard, and has the high honor of serving as the official Army Honor Guard, escort to the President and has a number of ceremonial duties. Soldiers in The Old Guard set the highest military standards by their intense training and the exacting standards in their daily routine.
As a member of the Caisson Platoon Honors Team, David was part of funerals in Arlington National Cemetery, our nation’s most hallowed ground.
A caisson is a wooden horse-drawn cart designed in 1918 for 75mm cannon, used by The Old Guard to transport a flag-draped casket in ceremonial dignity to a grave in the cemetery.
Every step of The Old Guard soldiers and every clip-clop of the horse hooves is choreographed to pay respect to those on the way to rest among the honored dead.
The Honors Team performed four funerals a day with a 4:30 a.m. start in the stables. The night before, after brushing the horses, they removed the brass from the horse leathers, and now in the pre-dawn they would polish the brass, clean the leathers, wash the horses and clean the hooves, two horses per man.
If the Honors Team that day had white horses, the cleaning job was a little harder for obvious reasons. After the horses were prepared, each man would dry-clean his own dress blues uniform, attach brass, awards and other fixtures with exacting precision and finally indulge in breakfast.
The caisson was drawn by six matched and well-trained horses fitted with McClellan saddles, originally designed for use by the U.S. Cavalry. The three left horses had riders like David High, and the seventh horse was known as the section horse, carrying separately the section sergeant leading the team.
Funerals were at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The eight-man casket team would remove the casket, carry to graveside and fold the flag with precision, giving each other subtle signals like a slightly lifted pinkie if the fold needed to be adjusted or tightened a small fraction of an inch, all while at attention.
They rode ramrod straight in the saddle while keeping the horses on track, keeping their uniforms spotless and making their performances appear robotically easy to observers and grieving families, rain or shine, cold or hot, snow or sleet, all day long, because every man or woman in those caskets deserved a dignified delivery to their grave.
At the end of the day the Caisson Platoon arrived back at the stable, usually before 6 p.m., but their work was not done. They would untack and brush the horses, exercise them, and, since the horses knew by the routine that their day of work was done, they would lie down in the hay for a nice rest while David and the others removed brass from the leathers and prepared for the next day’s work.
David High helped lay to rest with honor and respect more than 700 Americans.
At right, the Caisson Platoon Honors Team.
A few years ago I took my teenage daughter, Melanie, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, also in Arlington National Cemetery. That was a long and steep walk for a fat boy like me, and I tried to explain to her why every veteran I know is hushed in reverence with a lump in their throat as they approach the Tomb.
There is a sacred trust among men in battle to not leave anyone behind, whether dead or alive. But combat is chaos, and sometimes the dead are not immediately recovered. Sometimes remains were not even identifiable before the advent of DNA testing.
In our conversation I asked Melanie, “When a mother and father are informed their son has been killed in action, how long do you think it takes for them to get over that anguish?”
She thought for a moment and then answered, “Never!”
I said, “Exactly right,” and I explained this tomb is sacred because we sent these troops to war and their parents never even had the small comfort of burying their remains.
A few selected remains from WWI, WWII and the Korean War are interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under this inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
The Tomb is guarded by a solitary Old Guard soldier without rank on his meticulously prepared dress blues uniform to ensure he does not outrank any of the unknown interred. Since the U.S. Navy established a 21-gun salute as the highest honor reserved for heads of state, the Tomb Guard marches 21 steps south, turns east to face the tomb for 21 seconds, turns to face north for 21 seconds, then marches north 21 steps to repeat, back and forth 24/7, rain or shine, cold or hot, snow or sleet, with changing of the guard every half hour in hot weather from April through September, every hour October through March, in a brief choreographed ceremony.
The exacting preparation and execution of the Old Guard’s role in the Caisson Platoon and Tomb Guard has at its roots honor and respect. The crowd visiting the Tomb sometimes has a self-indulgent few who need a reminder, and the Tomb Guard finds it occasionally necessary to break his routine, step a few paces toward the crowd, stop with his rifle presented and loudly declare, “It is requested that all visitors maintain an atmosphere of silence and respect!”
There are too many who never learned proper respect. Our country is drifting too far away from America’s roots. Too few of us nowadays know what it means to serve under difficult circumstances. Too many are more focused on themselves than any duty to our country or any appreciation for the sacrifices required to keep us free. All of us need to remind ourselves, especially on Memorial Day.
We can’t all be part of the elite Old Guard to do our daily work in Arlington National Cemetery as David High did, but every American family can take the time on Memorial Day for the purpose it was intended. We can honor the fallen by showing our children this is what we do on Memorial Day.
In Peachtree City at the flagpole in front of City Hall and the library, at 9 a.m. the ceremony will begin on Memorial Day, but you better get there early if you want a good seat, or even a seat at all.
In Fayetteville in the cemetery on Highway 54 just west of courthouse square and adjacent to the Board of Education building, the ceremony begins at 11 a.m.
I hope on Memorial Day you will set aside the time to show your respect in front of your teenagers and younger children so they know, too. I hope you take them to one of the local ceremonies, whether they wish to go or not, to show them how to pay their respects with silent attention, standing ramrod straight when the flag is presented and with cap removed and hand over heart if the National Anthem is played.
While doing so, you might even say a silent prayer of thanks that your child lives while wishing peace for the parents whose kid came home from war in a flag-draped coffin or was one of those few never found at all.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]