Today I begin writing this at 36,000 feet in the air, looking down on Charleston or Little Rock or whatever other all-American places are in between Washington, D.C. and Dallas. I still have another flight before I get home to Tulsa.
My body is tired from walking so many miles this weekend, from staying up too late and getting up too early. I want my own pillow, my own shower, and my own kitchen. I am emotionally and physically exhausted, and yet when I get home a long list of tasks await me, including an exam that I haven’t been able to study for.
Underneath it all, none of that matters. I am on my way home from the Rolling Thunder/Gathering of Eagles II Rally. My soul is singing, for I have spent two days with heroes.
I don’t even know how to describe my feelings toward these men, these amazing people who know what it is to expect their own death but still, simultaneously and with all they have, fight for the lives of others. All of them – whether they are 80-year-old men who still remember Bastogne, or 20-year-old boys who grew old at Fallujah – are people who I look up to, who I envy for their incredible courage and grace, who I cry for at their nightmares and memories. This weekend I was able to hug so many of them and tell them that the media is wrong. Americans support them. I support them.
From the moment I first laid eyes on the ocean of red, white, blue and chrome, I was in love. Everywhere there were motorcycles, all different shapes and sizes. But almost as prominent as the bikes were the flags – more flags than I’ve ever seen. Every size you could think of, everywhere you could think to put them. There were small ones, poking out of hats and lapels, all the way up to gorgeously furling American colors streaming behind so many bikes.
Everyone I met had a story, a loved one who served or a name on the Wall. Everyone seemed to wear their lives on their jackets, testaments to their experiences and memories of those who never came home. They were all beautifully real, incredibly sincere. I saw many men who were not ashamed to cry that day.
I listened to a soldier from the United States Army Band sing our country’s national anthem in a way that made me think he might be an angel. Then I said the Pledge of Allegiance along with a young man who is willingly spending the rest of his life with one leg for my freedom, and I knew he was an angel.
One by one, these men stood up to speak, to thank us for caring, and ask us not to give up on them or their mission. It occurred to me while I stood there listening to these amazing, selfless people that never in our country’s history should the day have come when the defenders of our freedom have to beg us to stand and support them in their mission to protect us. I was suddenly sick to my stomach at the thought.
Standing on the stage later that afternoon, I looked out to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the larger-than-life man who sits there still, watching the country that he held together through faith, determination, and an unspeakable courage. How sad he would be, I thought, to know that we have to plead with our leadership to show just a fraction of the intestinal fortitude that he did. I sang my song feeling as though I wasn’t worthy to stand there.
I walked around to chat with people, to see their signs and hear their stories. I hugged them tightly, planting kisses on their cheeks with tearful thanks for the incredible gift they have given me.
On Sunday I was present at the Rolling Thunder ride, one of the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the streets to watch hundreds of thousands more ride through on every manner of bike you could imagine. I was with a family of patriots, and we could not have been more excited – or sweaty, in the August-like humidity. We crowded the side of the street to wave and yell in support of the thousands of bikes as they rode by, flags streaming proudly behind them.
I had heard of a Marine who stands in the median and salutes as all the bikes go by. I needed to see this for myself, and when I asked someone about it they said, “The Marine? He’s right down there. Just go around this way and down to the corner.”
It’s silly now to think of, but somehow I was afraid he wouldn’t be there anymore if I moved slowly, if I took my time walking down there. I should have known better. The Marines never just quit.
As I drew closer to the corner the crowd thickened considerably, and yet everyone moved when I asked to get by. “I need to see the Marine,” I would say, and the others would nod and let me pass. They understood.
Finally I stood in the best place I could, and there he was, saluting proudly, wearing his dress blues, medals glinting in the sun. He looked like a lion there, regally standing, ever vigilant. His face was lined with the memories of conflict, but his eyes were those of a resolute warrior. His arm never faltered and his feet never moved, even though standing in the heat and sun must have been incredibly draining. For 45 minutes he stood there with his fingers at his brow – statuesque, a testament to the stamina, the fortitude, and the selflessness of the Marine Corps.
I kept taking pictures until the tears blurred my eyes. My heart simply broke as I watched veteran after veteran ride by this man and salute him back. All these men have given so much, for so long. Everything washed over me then, and I cried for it all: their missing limbs and loved ones, their nightmares and tragedies, their tiny homes underneath white stone at Arlington. They gave themselves, and sometimes lost everything, but in their sacrifice we stand here today, more free than any people on earth. I could not ever repay them. None of us could.
I finish writing this as I sit on my couch in Tulsa, with my little boy playing outside safely and John Wayne leading Marine pilots into battle on the TV. I am blessed, for I live in the company of the brave.