Remembering my patriotism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Arlington National Cemetery

My dad was in the Navy, as was his dad before him. At enlistment age I was college bound, but Dad asked if I’d at least consider Navy ROTC. I said no.

That had to be hard for my Dad to hear. In his family, men served their country, period. Looking back, I’m surprised now that he didn’t insist.

I was excited about building a future in software engineering. I didn’t want military service to stand in my way.

Also, I was afraid I couldn’t cut it. I was not sure I had, and I felt sure I could not build, the physical toughness to serve. I have always been far more of my mind than my body. I remain unathletic, even clumsy.

I have also always had a hard time blindly following orders. In my younger years I needed to internalize the logic behind an order to execute it wholeheartedly. Even today, unless I am all-in on something I struggle to do it well.

I was sure these barriers would lead to military misery for me. Middle-aged hindsight tells me that ROTC could have helped me overcome these physical and intellectual challenges. If nothing else, it certainly would have paid for engineering school.

Yet refusing to serve my country led me to question my own patriotism. Did I love my country? To what lengths would I go to support it in a time of need? Could I fight and die if necessary?

I had a long conversation with my uncle Jack about it. He was always easy to talk to at a time when Dad often wasn’t. I could fight and die, I allowed, in a war where our very nation was threatened. I could not fight and die in the only kind of war fought during my lifetime, which I judged to be about policing foreign interests. Jack listened carefully and affirmed my concern. He then reminded me that whether I had already enlisted or if I were drafted, Uncle Sam would not care about my feelings if he needed me to fight. He also said that if I skipped to Canada as some had in that last conflict, that I would be turning my back on my country and I should never return. I left that discussion grateful to have been fully heard. But I had no better answer than before.

When the first Gulf War began I was out of college and working in software engineering. My anxiety spiked — I was draftable and this conflict looked serious.

By then I’d grown up enough, and Dad had mellowed enough, that we could talk about the most serious matters. So I called him. I could hear it in his voice: he, too, was deeply worried that his sons might be called up. He wouldn’t fully admit it, but I caught a whiff in his words that he wasn’t sure he liked his sons being drafted to a conflict that wasn’t clearly about protecting our nation. His patriotism remained firm, however. He gently reminded me that when your country calls, you simply go. On that call I reconciled it in my mind and, finally, agreed with him. It gave me a sort of peace.

But then no civilians were called. Since then, no other conflicts grew serious enough that the draft was a possibility. And now I’m well past the age when my country would require me to fight.

Lately I’ve become deeply interested in 20th-century history, and as our family trip to Washington approached I had coincidentally been watching a Ken Burns documentary about World War II. It told the war’s story through the memories of several soldiers and some of their family members. I came away from it feeling hell yes, that was a war worth fighting and  a cause worth dying for. And so, so many men died.

Those thoughts and feelings still filled my mind when Margaret said she wanted to go across the river to the National Cemetery. Exiting the subway we realized we had to rush to make the next changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We hurried up that hill, arriving seconds after the ceremony began. And what a ceremony, filled with every ounce of somber precision a soldier can muster.

Until then I had thought high military ceremony to be cartoonishly ridiculous. But as I watched the changing of the guard I realized how much training and practice are needed to achieve that polish and perfection. And I saw how it was this very effort that made the ceremony an appropriate honor. That unknown soldier had given his all, and so we offer our utmost in tribute. A long-lasting tribute, as a guard has been posted continuously since 1937.

It brought fully back to me what I had been taught from the time I was a boy: the good life we enjoyed in the United States existed not just through our natural resources, hard work, and ingenuity, but also because many people stepped up to protect it when it was threatened. It was good to be reminded, and to remember those that died in that protective service.

One more changing of the guard remained that day, and we lingered to see it begin. I had moved into a position directly across from the tomb, where I saw how all of America stretched out before it.


15 responses to “Remembering my patriotism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    I came of age in that brief window of time after the draft had ended and before registration was reinstituted, so I never even had to register. And like you, I saw enlistment as something for guys in better physical shape than me.

    And like you, I have suspected that a tour of military service would have been good for me in building discipline, if nothing else.

    I have developed a deep respect for those who have made the choice to serve.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I had to register. I did it on my 18th birthday.

      The career I chose has been rewarding and I got in at the right time, so on that level I don’t regret not delaying four years as an enlisted man.

  2. DougD Avatar

    Very great opportunity to see this and have those moments of thankfulness. I was brought to tears a few times at the RAF museum in England, as my family in Holland was liberated by Brits and nourished by RAF food drops during the hunger winter.

    In my family’s illustrious military history my Grandfather was court martialled out of the Dutch army for insubordination, but he later got the Yad Vashem medal for hiding Jews during the Nazi occupation. As with your military service I wonder if I could have done it, but thankfully I have not had to find out.

    My resolution is to be thankful and respectful to those who served, but remember there are many forms of service. It’s important to be decent, help others, pay your taxes and do all the other things that make society function.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There truly are many forms of service. None can get you killed in wartime quite like military service, however, so it’s worthy of much extra respect!

  3. davidscorbett Avatar

    i think of patriotism more like this to fix for most rather then war=leaders will always be failing until they do something like this=this would be love for the world= fix world =milk rich fix poverty do 16.00, 17.00, 18.00 hr min wage ,add 50 cents to 1$ hr in jan 2019, 200,000 yr after tax max wage-both up yrly with cost of living. no 1 10 times more important nor doing 10 times more-better work. if foundation was in then most charities n gov help would not be needed. do mandatory classes-anger, problem solve, job training, parenting, relationships, manage $ ,communication, etc. 9 -12 grades= less crime less violent crime . we all pay taxes for school 1-12 grades = should been taught right stuff to get ok job ok pay = failing system. the rich stole others turn share with poverty wage=slave wage= criminals. if all paid ok=could afford ok priced college n many basics like health care. poverty wage is slave wage. care for plants n animals ,give robots ok life too ,

  4. Nancy Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Stewart

    My genealogy family history shows most of my family has been here since colonial days, and many fought in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, World War 2 and my hubby is a Purple Heart Viet Nam veteran. His mom wanted him to go to Canada but he refused. His service has paid for his daughter’s college. Michael’s dad wanted him to do the ROTC thing to when he started at Notre Dame, but he also said no.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow, your family goes way back! Both sides of mine trace only to the mid-late 1800s as best as I can tell.

  5. TBM3FAN Avatar

    I turned 18 in December 1971. Needless to say Vietnam had been on my mind ever since LBJ sent troops over in 1965. I watched the years roll by. I watched the constant news reports roll by. I watched some high school seniors in 1967, 1968 and 1969 get drafted. I watched the college deferment eliminated. I watched the institution of the lottery and my birthday having a crappy number in the 70 and 71 draft. The 72 lottery, my lottery, gave me the number 13 if you can believe it.

    Now the cat and mouse game began as every time I was to report for my pre-induction physical it was at the end of the state that I wasn’t in. College in down south, home up in the north, and then college down in Southern California again. Ultimatum came down saying show up or be classified 1A. So I had to take the now scheduled physical in Los Angeles, being bused up from San Diego, in January 1973.

    However, I went to the Navy recruiter in December 1972 as I had no desire to be in the Army. Being in my second year of college they were interested and I was too. I could go to OCS after I finished college which is what the Navy wanted. They would pay the rest of college not that it mattered given how cheap it was. So I took the contract to think on it and see what happens. Took my physical in Los Angeles after being there overnight, that was an experience, and had the Army Captain tell me congratulation you are 1A. Nixon ended the draft January 27, 1973 and I never turned in my contract.

    I did have a friend, three years behind me, who did go OCS out of college into the Navy. Spent 21 years in the Navy becoming a steam propulsion and damage control expert before retiring as a Captain. At times I regret not going into Navy, like he did, but then I also had things to do and graduate school after college. My father is WWII Army, my younger brother Navy, his son Marines and my sister’s son Navy. Interestingly my nephew, nuclear engineering, spent only one 8 month tour on a carrier in 6 years. My 20 years in restoring the USS Hornet totals 4.5 solid years on the carrier.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You squeaked it out in the Vietnam era all right. The mouse won your cat-and-mouse game!

  6. Mike Hartley Avatar

    My parents are buried there so I make a few trips each year. I always walk down from their grave to the changing of the guard. And then I always try to see a section I haven’t before. In the winter its beautiful with a wreath at every grave. And Memorial Day weekend is something to behold. A place of much pride and pain. My respects to all military present and past.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow, it sounds like you’ve built quite a relationship with this place over the years. That’s awesome, and a wonderful tribute.

  7. pesoto74 Avatar

    I am named after an uncle who was killed in WWII. Very little of his remains were found and I remember that for years my grandmother hoped that some kind of mistake had been made and he was still alive somewhere. When I was growing up I was around a lot of WWII vets. My Dad and Godfather both saw combat. Back then some guys would say that only those who saw combat were real veterans. I suppose they thought that because just about all their peers did time in the military. Among the guys who saw combat there were the war heroes and then there was all the guys who were just trying not to get killed. The vast majority just wanted not to get killed and return home. I remember more than one guy telling me that they didn’t know why we were fighting in Europe until they saw the concentration camps. Anyway I don’t remember any of these guys thinking they were heroes. Now it seems that we have gotten to the point where everyone who has ever been in the military is some kind of hero. It seems like an odd transition. Myself I think people serve their country in a lot of ways. And we might be better off if the day would come when young men decide that are no longer going to serve the crazy visions of old men by going off to war.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There has been some level of veneration of basic military service. I don’t understand it. (By which I mean I lack understanding, not that I cast judgement.) I think military service is honorable but not inherently heroic.

      I remember even during my ’70s childhood some public discussion about what it meant to be a veteran. Back then I simply assumed it meant one who fought in a war, and there was a feeling of general support for that definition. But it’s entirely changed now and anyone who served at any time is considered one. I don’t know that this is a good or a bad thing.

  8. Frank Kalivoda Avatar
    Frank Kalivoda

    Highly interesting personal stories leading to this urge to tell mine! I completely lost interest in the army when I went for my draft physical with a bunch of football players from my high school who got 4Fs while I – a mostly blind timid weakling with flat feet – got a 1A. I did, however, avoid Korea by acing the college exemption test and later became insulated by working on government related engineering programs. None of my friends who did enter service experienced combat and I must say generally had interesting experiences. Luck of the numbers!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      How in heaven’s name did your gridiron friends get 4F while you got 1A?!

      My grandfather would have been 23 when WW II broke out. I feel sure he avoided service by being an engineer on defense projects.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: