Most likely, you have been considering things and people for which you are thankful. Thanksgiving Day invites all of us to do that.
I’ve been reflecting upon heroism.
When my son, David, and I went to Washington, DC earlier this month we took a moonlight tour of the monuments. Some I had seen before. The Lincoln Memorial. The Washington Monument. Both are particularly stunning at night. There are no crowds. There is little traffic. The atmosphere is one of hushed reverence. The shadows and the lights are beautiful.
But on that tour, I saw some monuments for the first time. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is striking. Dr. King’s image fills a gigantic stone that appears to have broken free from a mountain behind it.
I saw for the first time the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Later, in the daylight, I saw for the first time the World War II Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial (it’s a little out of the way and I had never ventured over there before).
But, the one that struck me most profoundly on the moonlight tour was the Vietnam War Memorial. People had tried to prepare me for that one. You can’t.
As you probably know, it’s a long wall with the names of our servicemen who were killed in Vietnam. The wall is short at first. As you walk alongside it, the wall grows taller. The path beside the wall goes on and on—you wonder if it will ever end.
And the names etched on the wall—the overwhelming sea of names. Tens of thousands of names. But, they are far more than names. Those were people who faced unspeakable horror. Those were sons, fathers, brothers. Heroes, every one of them.
At night, you notice the candles flickering at select spots. When you study the shadows on the ground you realize that those are flowers, still fresh, left no doubt earlier that day by a loved one.
I saw young people who were born a couple of decades after the war ended shining the light cast by their cellphones against the wall, straining to find a particular name. People of all ages and races gingerly slid their fingertips across the etched letters in the cold stone and, as I watched, the tears welled up in my eyes.
Such carnage. Such courage.
The next day, we set out on another quest. This time we were on our own. No tour. No guide. No lights. We had to ask directions.
We were looking for the National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall. We got on the subway and emerged at the stop. Even then it took a few moments to find it.
It was well worth the effort. It, too, is a wall. And on it are etched the names of heroes. Twenty thousand, two hundred and sixty-seven names. These are law enforcement officers from all across the country who were killed in the line of duty.
At the beginning of the wall there is a statue of a lion. Across the path from the lion are two lion cubs. The message is clear—the lion is protecting his cubs.
And of course the men and women whose names are on that wall were protecting us.
We searched for the names we knew would be on the wall, kicking the autumn leaves that had fallen on the path. There were so many—it was shocking how many names there were. Then I found the names I had come to see and remembered their funerals. I thought of the long lines of citizens who had crowded the streets as the caisson and hundreds of motorcycles had passed. I recalled the ceremony and the bagpipes and the trumpets playing “Taps”.
What makes a man or woman leave a safe place and run headlong into danger? And how can we ever repay them?
This Thanksgiving season I’m thankful for heroes.
Scott Ballard is District Attorney of the Griffin Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Fayette, Pike, Spalding and Upson counties.