She was five years old, just about to turn six and she made a World War II Veteran Cry. She didn’t mean to do it.
In Washington D.C., there is a monument built largely with private funds. It’s not as tall as many of the monuments, it’s not as audacious as those erected for past presidents and founders of our country. It’s really sort of a simple monument, the Monument for WW II Veterans in Washington D.C.,. That’s where it happened.
My Daughter had been on the mall with me and my wife, she played, walked through the congressional hallways and contemplated the height and meaning of the Washington Monument. She still believes in her Nation and her flag. Forgive us for being sentimental–we’re old. That’s her, on a warm day, in little girl clothes, looking up at the tower we built to honor General Washington. Then, we walked to the World War II Monument.
When we arrived at the Memorial, there were families walking about it. The wind was blowing softly and the day was unusually mild for D.C. Then the bus arrived.
World War II may be unique among wars in which our country has fought. The young men and women who fought it are no more brave or good than the young men and women who fought in any of our wars. But, the scope of the war was unique: the entire world was truly at risk of being run over by a man who believed in the supreme power of the “science” of his day; in Hitler’s twisted mind he—like, Stalin, the man with whom he pad partnered before he betrayed him–read in Eugenics, the great “science” of his time, that there we grades of human beings, some “races” ahead of others. Some “races” of human beings were so far behind, indicated the “science” of Eugenics, that Hitler and Stalin would be doing the world a “favor” by wiping out men and women and children and little babies … even little girls who stare at the sky and see in it possibilities for love and hope and happiness. Mad men are not unique—Saddam Hussein was a mad man, Mao was insane—but the world had allowed a stink-breathed psychopath named Adolph to roll over human beings and, because of appeasement, the risk of his winning half the world was real.
Then our boys and girls got into the battle.
The bus I mentioned unloaded old men, some women, but mostly old men. They leaned on canes, they rode in wheel chairs, a few walked, but they were in the minority. Even in the warm weather they wore coats and hats.
Oh, their hats! They had emblems on their hats: some were ball caps, some were cowboy hats and others were the hats from their old uniforms, taken from drawers or trunks for just this occasion. The emblems on the hats told the stories of people who survived what their brothers and sisters had not, they had the names of battles and units and ships that faced walls filled with machine guns and bombs. They told the stories of fighting tanks in the desert and submarines at sea. That is when my daughter saw one particular man, in a particular wheel chair, who gave my little girl a particular sort of wink—not a purposeful one, an accidental one, a smidgen of joy on his face even as he remembered his fallen friends.
The old soldier had come to see the monument built to honor not himself, but his brothers and sisters.
My daughter gripped my hand and asked me, “Daddy, is that man in the wheel chair a soldier?” I told her he was. “What is the jewelry on his shirt and hat?” I told her they were medals and what they meant and what he had probably seen and done to rescue the world from pure evil.
“Is he a hero?”
“Why don’t you go ask him?”
She released my hand and walked over to the old soldier—the WWII Veteran—I followed, but not too close. This was her moment with this man, with this history.
The man smiled at her. “Hello there”, he said.
She pointed at his medals: “my Daddy says you are a soldier.”
The man looked up at me and I smiled. He looked back at my Daughter.
“I was, yes, I was.” He took my Daughter’s hand and patter her head.
“Are you a hero?’
How do you answer that? My dear friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan—Bryan, Kelly, Ben, David, Dennis, Mark, Sonia and many more—tell me that they don’t feel heroic, they just did their jobs. But, how do you answer a little girl, her eyes filled with admiration and a sense that you—the old man in the wheel chair—are something more than a guy who did a job?
That’s when he cried and, with all the might he could muster, picked her up and set her on his knee. She touched his ball cap filled with emblems. “Little one”, the man spoke,” I am not a hero, I am just an old soldier … these men …” he sobbed a little and rubbed her back and then looked at her again, “my friends were heroes and soldiers and I came here for them.”
My Daughter looked into this man’s eyes and did something only a little one would ever do. She put her finger inside her sleeve and she wiped the man’s cheeks.
He laughed and I walked over.
She got down and said, “he says he is not a hero, but his friends are.”
What do you say to that? To your little girl with the tears of an old soldier on her bright pink and white sleeve? You know what you don’t do? You don’t ruin the moment snapping pictures, you absorb it into your being.
I looked the old soldier in his green eyes and said, “Honey … that’s what true heroes always say and we just have to tell them thank you.”
The old man nodded and mouthed thank you.
Thank you to everyone who served and to everyone who died serving. We hold you in our prayers. We offer our sleeves, we offer our hearts, we thank you for the safety in which our children will sleep tonight.