It was 1997 and I was a wandering international vagrant, all my belongings rolled into a purple Kelty backpack. I sported a sock tan line above dusty sneakers, frizzy hair, singular body odor, and called a small handful of fellow students who dared follow the trail of the Roman Empire through Tunisia “family.”
By the time we made it to Carthage and Tunis we had experienced so much of a culture that was not our own. Not only in the sense of Roman ruins and ancient wonders, but in the practical: watching locals eat a dinner of brain out of goat skulls (ears still attached), our “maxi-bus” breaking down and overheating on the edge of the Sahara Desert, playing with children and learning a chanting song as we waited for our bus driver to come back with parts, riding camels for hours and sleeping in Bedouin tents, visiting the location where George Lucas filmed portions of Star Wars (Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle’s home, the Mos Eisley cantina).
We recognized we were moving in a culture different from our own: the police officers carried automatic weapons that were chillingly black, every building sported a picture of their military leader. Those of us who were women were not veiled in the 100+ degree heat – and experienced the leers of the men as well as the occasional lecherous groping while walking through the public markets or riding the transits.
Our band of weary travelers… we were full of sights, sounds, ideas, dreams. We were dusty, tired, physically fit and lean, and emotionally saturated.
Our itinerary took us to the North African Cemetery and Memorial, an island of the United States. Suddenly the flags we saw were red, white, and blue, the Stars and Strips, rather than the vaguely menacing crescent and sickle to which we were accustomed.
The grass was green, luscious, and impeccably maintained. The headstones glistened white against the grassy background.
In a foreign world… we were home.
The majority of U.S. citizens have no idea that half a world away, 2,841 of our military dead are in their final resting places, most losing their lives in World War II military activities in North Africa and the Gulf. Along the southeast edge of the burial area, bordering the tree-lined terrace leading to the memorial is the Wall of the Missing. On this wall 3,724 names are engraved.
There, in a dusty, foreign country, there is an oasis of land belonging to the United States, a far away home for our military who made the ultimate sacrifice – their life! — so I could enjoy the freedom to wander the globe, attend college as a woman, sleep at night without fear of attack.
I can’t fully describe how it felt to stand on American soil that date and remember those who fell on foreign soil. I can’t fully describe the pride I felt in seeing that memorial, or the reason tears spilled down my cheeks as I read the plaques, silently took in the sheer number of grave markers, and thanked God I came from a culture that was willing to fight for ideals, for an opportunity to live freely and according to conscience.
I can only assure you it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Right up there with my wedding day and the birth days of our children.
America… this elusive philosophy strange dudes wearing curly wigs came up with… it’s worth something.
Grave sites… those austere markers guarded by soldiers and visited on days like today… they mean something.
Our country… it is worth defending both militarily and philosophically.
Happy Memorial Day. I pray you did something today that is worth the sacrifice these people made; whether you recognize it or not, many have already given their lives so you could truly live today.
What do you have to give in return?