Few experiences are more powerful or moving than a visit to a cemetery on Memorial Day. Unlike a military cemetery where rows upon rows of graves give silent testimony to the human cost of war, in most Kansas cemeteries the stories of the dead – young, old, male and female – tell a story about the community.
But like their battlefield counterparts, cemeteries that dot the Kansas countryside are the resting place for veterans. Some of these graves are filled with young men who barely reached adulthood when they died. Their stories tell of dreams unfulfilled, of promises and potentials cut short.
When visiting these places, it is possible to be overcome with a sense of yearning. It is also possible to feel something larger, a sense of finality and rest, and a sense of peace.
The soldiers from World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan are at rest in these cemeteries. They live on in the memory of their families and friends and, in a larger sense, in the memory and gratitude of the nation they gave their lives for. Lingering among the memories is always the nagging question: Did they die in vain?
On Memorial Day, Kansans will once again gather in cemeteries in Iola, Valley Falls, Meade, Washington, Hoisington or Grinnell to recall and reassure themselves that the lives and deaths of these young men and women had meaning.
When we think of our liberties this Memorial Day, remember that some gave all. Remember those veterans who died so we could remain free.
Only a handful of those who served in World War I remain, and the number who served in World War II dwindles daily. Vietnam veterans have reached middle age and today’s young men and women are the veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For many their story remains the same. They grew up as farm kids in the Midwest or some other region of our country. Those from the Midwest grew up with the feel of the prairie earth beneath their feet, the wide-open sky overhead and the rhythm of the seasons in their blood.
At an early age, most of the young men and women learned to cultivate the soil, plant crops and harvest the bounty with their parents. Like many farm boys and girls, they understood machinery and the use of tools. They developed self-reliance and initiative.
Soon, many found themselves in another field far from home. This field was a battlefield in Europe, the Far East, Vietnam or the Middle East. These veterans become the unsung heroes of war.
But these young men and women were not repairing a combine in a harvest field or operating a small business on MainStreet. Instead, they were patching up a tank under enemy fire, threading their way through the jungles of Vietnam, avoiding anti-personnel mines in Iraq or keeping an eye peeled for snipers in Afghanistan.
This Memorial Day, mothers, fathers, families and friends will travel to cemeteries across Kansas and our country. Once on those hallowed grounds, they will pause to remember and pray for the young men and women who did not return from war. For many, visiting a cemetery on Memorial Day somehow eases the pain and loss of loved ones.
At the same time let’s give thanks and remember those veterans who are still with us. Let’s not forget those serving around the world today in the armed forces.
John Schlageck, a Hoxie native, is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas.