Traffic noise drifted from the busy road alongside the Houston National Cemetery this past Saturday. Construction netting and piles of dirt formed an odd boundary around the far side of the section containing my father-in-law’s grave. But these could not take away from the sense of serenity and order. Everything about this place manifests respect for our veterans: hundreds of granite headstones stand at attention in perfect rows and columns, much as those once stood whose graves they mark. The grass stands at attention, too, every blade clipped to the same length like a military haircut. Live Oak trees stretch their shade over drives and walkways; fountains send up spray from numerous little ponds. You can see the US and Texas flags from all over. Fallen heroes are honored in this place.
But not all our heroes are buried in a National Cemetery. I thought about my two grandfathers, who both joined the US Army during World War I. My dad’s father served in France and was buried with military honors in Oklahoma. My mother’s father, deemed “4-F,” served in obscurity. He spent the war in a military post office in New Jersey or someplace. He was also buried in obscurity, in a remote cemetery outside a small Missouri town. His grave is not even near his own parents’, fifteen miles down the road, but with his wife’s people. My grandmother’s people. (My grandmother’s grandfather, who served in the US Army during the Civil War, is buried in the same obscure cemetery.)
Of course, military heroes do not arise out of a vacuum. Behind every one of them is a family who raised them to be responsible adults–the sort of responsible adults who will go and fight oppression wherever their country sends them. These mothers, fathers and siblings are also heroes. Such a hero was my father-in-law’s mother Agnes. Agnes raised Dad and the rest of her seven children to successful adulthood with more interference than help from her alcoholic husband. Dad’s brothers, both several years older, joined the military during World War II. He himself was drafted near the beginning of the Korean War. Although he was not naturally a fighter and he hated cold weather, he served with distinction through two bitterly cold Korean winters. The Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. bears this inscription, which describes Dad Johnson’s heroism better than I could:
Our nation honors her sons and daughters
who answered the call
to defend a country they never knew
and a people they never met.
And, of course, most of us know someone currently in military service. As an Aggie Mom whose son was commissioned into the US Army from Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets, I am privileged to know a number of young officers and future officers who will be flying trainers, making desert patrols or studying Arabic this week. These young heroes also have heroes behind them. I think of my lovely daughter-in-law, who does not intend to mope her way through my son’s first deployment. Instead she is arranging to spend that time in positive, productive ways.
On Saturday Brent placed a small American flag beside Dad Johnson’s headstone. In a way it felt good to have a grave to visit, to see Dad and his brothers in arms all being held in such honor. The granite monuments here hold a deep meaning. (My own Dad, who spent most of World War II aboard a Merchant Marine supply ship, chose cremation, so we have no special place to honor him.) As near as I can figure, the real memorial is found in brave and selfless deeds — whether celebrated or barely known — that live on to impact the world after the one who performed them is gone.
Happy Memorial Day. And welcome, Soli Deo Gloria sisters!
Thanks for reading,