About a month ago, there was a request for volunteers to participate in the Memorial Day Ceremonies here in Belgium. Four Sailors and myself volunteered. One other Sailor and myself on the Color Guard and the rest as members of the Honor Platoon or wreath bearers. I’ve marched before; I’ve held a rifle before. But, my god, I’ve never done so much of it over the course of a weekend — not even in being part of a 900 Division in boot camp.
“We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in…”
— Secretary of State Colin Powell
There are three cemeteries in Belgium: Ardennes, Henri-Chapelle and Flanders, we honored the fallen at all three. The love and care put into the grounds there are at a level beyond anything I can remember seeing in the States. There was literally nothing that looked unkept, everything was immaculate and proper. Those who care for the grounds there we owe a huge debt.
I really was not sure what to expect from a Memorial Day celebration outside of the United States. I wouldn’t expect anyone but American Citizens to ever want to honor the memory of those we lost in battle. When we practiced we were told that they were large, well attended ceremonies. But, I still couldn’t conceptualize what I actually saw over the course of the weekend.
I don’t know the exact count. But, there must have been over 200 people in attendance at each Cemetery (standing room only at Flanders), the minority of which were Americans. I met a very nice lady from the Netherlands and her friend. They had taken pictures of me at Henri-Chapelle and shared them. She has adopted grave sites and the names of the missing at Cemeteries in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. She attends the Ceremonies every year, and has never looked to be recognized for her support. There were a significant number of Belgian Veterans in attendance, you could spot them by their awesome mustaches (it seriously must be a requirement to grow an epic mustache to receive veteran benefits in Belgium) and the medals they wore. Many had their Unit’s colors with them, embroidered with the dates of the campaigns they fought in. School Children in Waregem have learned our National Anthem since the 1920s, both the Belgian and US National Anthems were sung by them. Speeches were given by the US Ambassadors to the European Union and Belgium, The US Military Representative to NATO and Senator Leahy. From Belgium the King sent a representative and the Mayors of the towns in which the Cemeteries are located also spoke.
In all 14,151 of our dead were honored. There were no Belgians, Americans, or anyone of any Nationality there. There were only we who remembered those who gave the last full measure of devotion to a cause greater than themselves and their homelands. The French version of the Belgian National Anthem has a line which translates as “To you we stretch our hearts and arms” and that is how I felt this Memorial Day weekend. I would never expect anyone from a Nation other than the US to thank me or anyone for our service and the sacrifices we make. But, they do and they are sincere when they give thanks.