A cemetery may seem an unlikely place to spend a holiday, but when the occasion is Memorial Day and the place is the Alabama National Cemetery, nothing could be more appropriate.
If you are 21 years old, you probably have no recollection of America ever being at peace; in that interval alone U.S. personnel have participated in at least 18 different military operations around the world. Nevertheless, odds are that you have not been personally affected by these wars. Since the nation shifted to an all-volunteer army in 1973, all socioeconomic strata no longer share the burden of sacrifice proportionally. Uninvolved, unaffected, the 99 percent of Americans not presently connected to our continuing prosecution of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the Philippines, the Trans-Sahara and the Horn of Africa, not to mention Operation Freedom Eagle in northwest Pakistan, evidence little concern for those fighting in their name abroad and the families they have left behind.
It would be a good thing if the nation took off two days a year to contemplate war and the people who fight it. Unfortunately, both Veterans Day and Memorial Day have become red-letter days on retail calendars and, especially on the latter, folks are more likely to get enthused about a three-day vacation than the opportunity to pay respects to the estimated 2,762,000 citizens who have died fighting in America’s wars.
Colonel Bob Barefield, current chairman of the Support Committee for the Alabama National Cemetery, is sanguine about this. “If it wasn’t for the military, past and present,” he told us last week, “we would not have the freedom to celebrate Memorial Day the way we do.”
You may not even be aware that we have our own national cemetery. Though two already existed in south Alabama, a National Cemetery Expansion Act in 2003 entitled the state to create a new space to inter veterans. Four years later, 479 acres were purchased near American Village in Montevallo, and in 2009, the first burials took place in the ALNC. Eligible veterans, their spouses and eligible dependent children can be buried or their ashes can be interred there at no cost. “Providing lasting tributes to their sacrifice is one of VA’s most honorable missions, one we are proud to fulfill,” then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said upon the cemetery’s opening.
The reason there’s a support committee is that sometimes government can’t provide everything for everybody. “For example, they budgeted for an Avenue of Flags, but neglected to provide flagpoles,” Col. Barefield said. The support sommittee organized fundraising to purchase 37 flagpoles for the site and subsequently published a book entitled Avenue of Flags that showcases not only the Alabama site, but also America’s national cemetery system in general.
Another organization with which Col. Barefield is connected will also play a big part in Monday at the cemetery. “The Blue Star Salute Foundation was originally founded in Alabama,” he explained, “because those of us who were in Vietnam, when we came back, we were treated like war criminals, for killing babies and things of this nature.” He and his associates determined this would not happen again. “We said, look, the military who are fighting our battles today, we’re going to make sure they get a good sendoff, we’re going to make sure they get a good reception when they come home.”
Memorial Day observances at the ALNC, the Eighth Annual Blue Star Salute, provide a fitting reception for those who came home forever. The day will begin at 9 a.m. with a dedication of wreathes placed by representatives of each branch of the military service, as well as representatives of the Merchant Marine, POW/MIA organizations and Gold Star Wives, Mothers and Families. Starting at 11:30 a.m., at American Village, the salute continues until 4 p.m. with more recognition, for Purple Heart winners and the legendary Buffalo Soldiers, among others.
On the latest Bruce Springsteen album, there’s a song entitled “We Take Care of Our Own,” the refrain of which underlines the continuing mission of Colonel Barefield and all those who consider themselves brothers and sisters in arms. Here’s how it played out recently: a native Alabaman named William Posey checked into hospice care in Clanton. When World War II erupted, Posey had thought about joining the Navy, but when he was able to enlist, he couldn’t take his eyes off the snappy dress blues worn by the Marine recruiters, so in 1944 a Marine he became.
What he realized too late was that dress blues are not standard-issue uniform. They cost extra to acquire and are not particularly cheap to purchase. “I am proud to be able to say, ‘I was a Marine,’ though I never did get those blasted dress blues,” Posey wrote in 1979 in an unpublished manuscript about his wartime experience.
When Posey entered hospice, he confided to his nurse his wish to somehow see that manuscript published. Arrangements were made, and EBSCO Industries printed Dress Blues earlier this year. “It’s a real funny book,” Col. Barefield said. “It takes a comical approach to boot camp and drill sergeants and everyone he encountered throughout World War II.”
But there was more. VA was contacted about acquiring a set of dress blues for Mr. Posey. All it took was money. Col. Barefield, state representative Kurt Wallace and many others chipped in, and on May 7, at a Montevallo book signing event, the 93 year-old author and former Marine was presented a set of snappy dress blues.
The long line of those who died for their country passes in review Monday. Whether it’s formally at the ALNC or informally at the barbecue, spare a thought for the enormity of that kind of sacrifice. Take care of your own.
The Alabama National Cemetery is located next to American Village on Highway 119 in Montevallo, about six miles west of I-65. Admission to Memorial Day events at the Village will be $5 for civilians; active military and veterans will be admitted free.
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to email@example.com.