It was the day after Hurricane Sandy, and only I, and our intrepid leader, John, showed up for the scheduled town walk through the cemetery. The ground was littered with debris, the decorative iron fence marred by the force of a fallen tree. As we walked the paths, John began picking up the small American flags, now strewn about the landscape, honoring the veterans buried there. He returned the flags to their graveside medallions.
As I joined him, I was struck by the breadth of our indebtedness. The earliest inscriptions we found were for the Spanish American War (1898). There were many markers for GAR—Grand Army of the Republic—designating service in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Some tombstones and medallions for the first European war (1914-1918) just said World War, devoid of a number, and serving as a reminder that this war was to be the war “to end all wars.” But, of course, it did not. Rows and rows of medallions, lined up like corn in an Iowa field, spoke to the apparently unending nature of war.
In quick succession we saw markers for those who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Too many markers, too many wars, too many bodies. If you stand quietly and close your eyes, you can almost hear the heartbeats. Their presence gives one pause.
As we continued to walk we noticed a monument for the Stryker family. We were specifically drawn to the headstone for Captain Frank P. Stryker: “Killed in Battle at the Elbe River, April 14, 1945. Buried in Margraten, Holland, R.I.P.” We knew the Stryker name from our walks through Maplewood, the post-World War II neighborhood, where a grateful citizenry named the streets for Stryker and fellow comrades-in-arms: KREUTZ, MYERS, GLEN, MILLER, KERSHAW, CHUBB, WALTON, MCLAUGHLIN, MCCONNELL, and TAIFER. A Veterans Park and dedicated memorial site acknowledge “…the freedoms gained for us by those honored dead.”
Our liturgy last year prompted me this year to embark on a pilgrimage of sorts to other memorials around town. The courthouse lawn at a central crossroads forcefully reminds us that “Freedom isn’t Free.” Thanks to a project undertaken by Gold Star families and the county commissioners, we not only read the names of those who served and died, we see their faces. I feel the stinging pinpricks of tears. Not just names, but faces. Names, faces, and ages—ranging from 19 to 43, most in their 20s. Their lives given in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Our town is the county seat and memorials abound, including one of the first Civil War memorials in the country. This defining obelisk honors the 104th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers Infantry as well as Colonel W. W. H. Davis, a prominent citizen and founder of the Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society. To raise the money for the monument, surviving members of the regiment baked bread and sold it to the Union Army. How novel—the military holding a bake sale to raise funds!
Davis established Camp Lacey on what is now Memorial Field at a local high school. His stern leadership forced weekly baths and smallpox inoculations which resulted in much grumbling among the men, but the reality of war and pestilence soon revealed Davis’ wisdom. After their training, 1,049 men departed to become part of the Army of the Potomac. Regimental losses are listed on the plaque, again reminding us that armies are comprised of individuals, and that freedom isn’t free.
World War II veterans are honored nearby, as are those who fought in Korea, the Persian Gulf, and Vietnam.* The graceful arc of the Vietnam memorial offers an important reminder as it also pays tribute “… to those…who did return, yet later died or suffered due to debilitating physical or emotional pain…"
Looking around, I notice a solitary pink rose adorning the base of a small pillar and move closer to investigate. It is a tribute to others who have died in service to their community: police, firefighters, and other law enforcers.
Walking down Printers Alley to Pine Street, I encounter the rich mosaics of Freedom Square, commemorating the leadership and “service above self” demonstrated by two young local residents, both killed in Iraq. This memorial not only honors the fallen, but also challenges the living, asking the provocative question, “Do we take liberty for granted?”
My journey then leads me to the County War Memorial sculpture at Broad and Main, dedicated to “…these memories of service and sacrifice” given in all wars“…in the defense of our country…”
Our beautiful community reminds us—in all its corners—of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in preserving for us the ideals of liberty and justice and freedom upon which our nation is founded. It has been a rich and inspiring activity to move among these memorials and grave sites, acknowledging each one. It has left my heart heavy, but also grateful.
It is important that we remember.
The Bucks County Herald, November 14, 2013
*I dedicate this article to all veterans, but most especially to my brother, Donald Steinkirchner. He was a proud member of the navy and served in Vietnam. He returned home to a nation that unfairly judged those who served, rather than those who made the decisions to pursue such a conflict. Despite the hostility, he used his skills, intelligence, and work ethic to develop his trade, learned on an aircraft carrier. He successfully reentered society and has provided a secure home for himself and his family ever since. I am very proud of him.