by Rebecca D. Higgins
On Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend 2011, I paused to sit down and watch the National Memorial Concert from Washington, DC on my local PBS station. As the stories of brave men and women were told interspersed with musical numbers, I found myself reaching frequently for the box of Kleenexes sitting on the coffee table nearby. Outside my living room window the gentle snap of my flag as it caught the evening breeze served as a reminder that I am still able to fly that symbol of freedom proudly as a result of the sacrifice of so many brave men and women throughout the years.
As I went to bed that night to sleep peacefully, I said some prayers for those families who have paid the ultimate sacrifice so that I can enjoy the freedoms this country holds dear.
The next day I had several at-home projects that kept me busy and away from the official Memorial Day observances, but later in the afternoon, I needed to get out of the house. I headed the few miles down the road to Camp Nelson National Cemetery, deciding to have my own quiet moments to remember the price paid for freedom. I drove my car back as far as I could in the cemetery, parked, and began to make my way quietly and respectfully along the rows of white markers and American flags that adorned each grave for the Memorial Day. A few other families were also visiting the final resting place of loved ones and friends.
Suddenly the plaintive notes of a lone bugle interrupted the hushed quiet of that sacred place as the familiar strains of Taps floated over the rows of markers and flags. I swallowed hard over the lump that formed immediately in my throat and wiped the moisture from the corners of my eyes. “Where were the notes coming from?” I wondered as my eyes scanned the cemetery. Then I saw them–two figures some distance away from me. Even though I had to squint to see and their backs were towards me, I recognized that they were wearing some type of uniform. As the notes of Taps died away, the arms of the taller of the two figures lowered the bugle to his side, and then his free right arm performed a slow, deliberate salute.
I had started moving in their direction as soon as I had determined the source of the music. I wanted to thank them for their service and for that poignant Memorial Day observance to which I had been a witness. Someone else who had witnessed the tribute reached them first, and I waited respectfully as a veteran from the Vietnam era talked about places and shared experiences that the bugler had also known. When I had opportunity, I shook the hands of the husband and wife duo and thanked them. I then heard their story.
Mike and Gerry Tarter are from Goshen, Ohio, where they both serve as VFW local honor guards at military observances and funerals. Mike served in the army as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam. While he is thankful to have made it home, seven of his high school buddies from Goshen did not. Their lives were cut short when they were still in their teens and early twenties while serving in the military. For over 40 years Mike has kept a promise that they would not be forgotten. After his stint in the army, he served in the Air Force for the rest of his career. Since he retired in 1990, every Memorial Day, he and his wife Gerry make a pilgrimage. Following their participation in their local Goshen Memorial Day observances, they head out in their truck, making stops at national cemeteries in Kentucky and on down the road to Tennessee where Mike’s buddies have been laid to rest. At each of their graves he plays Taps, salutes, and spends a few moments talking to his friends, always reiterating the promise that they will not be forgotten and that he will be back next year. They had two soldiers to honor at Camp Nelson and I listened as they pointed out the trees that helped pinpoint the location of the second soldier’s marker. And again I was moved as Mike performed his ritual–Taps and a salute and a wipe of the eyes to dab away the tears.
As I talked to the couple, Gerry (Mike’s wife) asked me if I had seen his truck. “It’s one of a kind,” she told me. As they headed to where they had parked it, I tagged along so that I could see the pictorial tribute on wheels they had created to remember those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and to honor all veterans who have served. Even though it was around 5:00 p.m. when I encountered them at Camp Nelson National Cemetery, their day was far from over. They still had miles to go and more heroes to honor before they closed their eyes in sleep.
As I watched their truck pull out of the cemetery and head south on state road 27, Robert Frost’s words appropriately came to mind as they continued their long Memorial Day journey:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
(from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)
They are keeping the promise that those who have served and paid the ultimate sacrifice will not be forgotten.
Many years before them, one of our nation’s greatest presidents also stood in a cemetery that had been the site of a bloody battlefield. At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln eloquently urged the nation to remember:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (“The Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln).
So I have come to learn that on these national days of remembrance and throughout the year it is important to take the time to acknowledge that freedom isn’t free and be one who makes the promise to ensure that freedom will continue to ring–not only from sea to shining sea, but in the hearts of all those who humbly bow before Almighty God, the true giver of all freedom.
Postscript: On March 3, 2016, I received a message from the daughter of Mike Tarter informing me that her dad was in his final battle with cancer. A few days later I heard the news that after a lifetime of keeping his promise, Mike’s journey had come to an end. On March 15, 2016, I traveled to Goshen, Ohio, to attend Mike’s memorial service. As I told his family, it was the least I could do to pay my respects to someone who had traveled thousands upon thousands of miles over the years to honor the memory of others. Mike, you will not be forgotten!
Mike Tarter’s wife Gerry receives the flag presented in Mike’s honor.