Before leaving to cover the annual Memorial Day ceremonies in Nancy Monday, I spoke to my father, who was spending his morning with Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and the whole gang.
“The thing I really like about Memorial Day,” he said, “is all the war movies are on.”
“The Dirty Dozen.” “The Guns of Navarone.” “Heartbreak Ridge.” For many of us, this is the closest we’ll get to a glimpse into what war is like. Their appeal has proven timeless, with many such films developing fans that will watch again and again, year after year. It’s practically tradition.
Hollywood screenwriters do their best to portray the actions of brave men and women who have pledged to defend their country against those who would do it harm. Sometimes war is glorified; sometimes we are shown the horrors inherent to the battle lines. Always, however, we see these things from the safety of our couch, as filtered through the lens of a camera.
The Mill Springs National Cemetery, however, tells the story in a less action-packed but more decidedly in-your-face fashion — because it is, in fact, right in front of your face. The haunting beauty of the lines of headstones — each a story in its own right, if only we take the time to look at them — is as compelling as any film, or more so.
We see the echoes of war in a much more genuine way than is allowed on the screen. Every stone signifies that someone who has fought — or someone who has died in battle, or someone who has worried over her spouse as he served his country — lies just beneath the earthen floor. While we hear no clever lines delivered by grizzled character actors, nor witnesses the pyrotechnics of soundstage artillery, the silence and serenity that surrounds the graves at Mill Springs pierces straight to the soul with the ferocity of a bugle’s blast.
“This is an opportunity to pay respect to all the veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Dr. Bruce Burkett, current Mill Springs Battlefield Association President and the event’s emcee, told me following the Memorial Day ceremony at the burial site. “(Those) that died protecting our standard of living, from the American Civil War until Afghanistan. With families and history, the personal ties, it’s always touching.
Burkett explained that the cemetery was created after the Battle of Mill Springs, a crucial Civil War event, with Union soldiers being buried here in 1862. It became one of the first national cemeteries in the whole of the U.S. and veterans from every conflict since that time have had their remains laid to rest in the well-groomed greens in far western Pulaski County — with space for more soldiers over another 20 years or so.
The ceremony is, to borrow a well-worn phrase, short but sweet. The collection of chairs pitched on the southern side of the grounds facing the pavilion have barely had time to make a rut in the dirt by the time everything is done. Yet what is seen and heard sticks with you all day.
We are presented with the colors of our country, dutifully handled by the Southwestern High School JROTC, and led in the Pledge of Allegiance by Boy Scout Troop 82. Norrie Wake sings the National Anthem. Everyone stands, not out of mere compulsory custom but of absolute reverence for what those traditions represent, particularly on Memorial Day.
The featured speaker is Chief Michael McKee, a retired Electrician’s Mate in the U.S. Navy. The list of honors and accomplishments for McKee in the program I’ve been handed is long — eight different ships on which he’s served. The Navy & Marine Corps Commendation Medal. The Good Conduct Medal with silver star. The National Defense Service Medal with bronze star. The list goes on. McKee commands the audience’s attention and respect.
McKee is aware of the way Memorial Day is enjoyed by most in this country. A time to relax, to cook out on the grill, to hold family reunions. Doing so does not sully the true significance of the day, but neither should holiday fun obscure the meaning completely. It clearly had not for the hundred or so folks that were in attendance.
“For those of you who are here today, let me give you a ‘thank you’ because you’re here on Memorial Day,” said McKee at the podium. “You’re here thanking those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for this great country of ours.
“We have folks here today who are 90 years old, down to newborns,” he continued. “The ones that are here today have taken time out of their busy schedule ... to recognize what Memorial Day is all about.”
The spirit of the occasion, felt McKee, is summed up in a quote by Union General John Logan in 1868, which McKee shared: “With the choicest of flowers of springtime, we should guard these graves with sacred vigilance. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
Added McKee, “To my older friends that are here, I ask you to continue your course in recognizing Memorial Day for what it is. To the next generation, I ask you to please keep that torch sacred and pass on to your posterity what Memorial Day is.”
If there is anything Memorial Day truly represents, it is a time to reflect on lives that have been lost, an experience which is unique and personal to each of us but never lacking in magnitude.
Like everyone else in that cemetery on Monday, my thoughts went to people I knew, people who are no longer in my life but have touched it in enduring ways. I thought of both my grandfathers, who fought in the United States Navy in World War II, paternal and maternal alike. I was able to spend precious time with them; not everyone else has been so fortunate. But each of us, in our individual way, has known loss — and each of us may show all due reverence.
War movies are great. They do have truth to share. But the most effective way to see what the cost of freedom is comes in a place like the Mill Springs National Cemetery — where every step begins a new story.