Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

A Meditation on the Nature of Sacrifice

[Editor’s Note: I submitted a version of this as a column to my newspaper shortly after Memorial Day 2020, but recently found out it had never run. It was relevant to the political chaos with respect to our COVID-19 response then. Sadly, it remains relevant now. I have updated it somewhat for where the dis-United States seems to be in September 2021.]

AMELIA, Va. – On Memorial Day 2020, my mom and I went on a little family trip.

It was the kind thousands of families around the nation make on Memorial Day weekends. I would not call it a pleasure trip, however. We did not go to a beach or boat landing. Instead, we went to a veteran’s cemetery: the Virginia Veterans Cemetery in Amelia.

We went to visit my dad, George M. Lawrence, on what was just two days shy of the first anniversary of his death.

Virginia Veterans Cemetery at Amelia
Some family members visit their relative’s remains at the Virginia Veterans Cemetery at Amelia on Memorial Day, May 25, 2020. The ashes of my dad, George M. Lawrence, are in the columbarium at the upper right.

My dad earned his right to be interred there. He served honorably in the U.S. Air Force in what was the early years of the Vietnam Era. He saw no combat. He was one of the vast majority of military personnel that make sure those at the tip of the spear can do their jobs.

He was discharged months before the Cuban Missile Crisis – since he was still serving his reserve obligation, he was alerted just in case that crisis got out of hand. Fortunately, that crisis did not.

My dad did what his country asked him to do. He kept finding ways to serve after his military career was over. After his discharge, he left jobs with great profit potential, eventually settling on a profession that didn’t pay so well, but served the public by keeping them informed of the goings-on (and misdeeds doing on) around them: He became a journalist, a profession that – despite our best efforts to give the people the facts – is held in unjustified disregard today.

Technically, the holiday was not for my father. He did not give his life in service of his country. Veterans Day is, again technically, his holiday. But he served his nation with honor, and – especially given the proximity to the date of his death – it seemed an appropriate day to visit his final resting place.

It was also my first chance to see his marker, with the words I gave, and which he would have been honored to wear, “Muckraker and proud of it.”

There is a blank space next to my father. My mother, Kathleen Marie Yee Lawrence, also served the United States with honor, also in the U.S. Air Force. That space is reserved for her. When it is time for her to occupy that waiting residence – which, I hope, will be many years from now – she will have earned her spot in that hallowed space with honor and dedication.

While the Memorial Day holiday is – technically again – specifically for those who gave their lives in defense of our nation, cemetery operators do not differentiate. All who served with honor get their flags, my dad included.

It is a powerful site, rows and rows of grave markers and American flags. Even for the majority of veterans who survived combat or who never saw it at all, they gave of themselves to make the United States and the world a better place.

In a way, I am envious. I offered myself to the U.S. Navy in the 1980s, only to be told I was too blind. Not only did my eyesight not meet the induction requirements, it was so bad it exceeded the maximum deviation that could be waived.

Still, the example of service that both my parents set sunk in. For much of my adult life I sought ways to volunteer, and now I do so as an emergency medical technician for a rescue squad as well as with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps.

Those who now rest in veterans cemeteries such as the one in Amelia likewise set a standard of service and selflessness that, while maybe difficult for many of us to equal, is no less worthy of us to aspire to.

So, next time anyone wants to gripe about his or her “rights” when asked to wear a mask or get a vaccine before entering a store, going to a job site, or going to school, they should ask themselves: What about the “rights” of a 20-something-year-old who died after getting his legs blown off in a rice paddy in Vietnam? I am fairly certain, if the questioner is honest, that they will admit the sacrifice of wearing a mask or getting a vaccine pales in comparison to that of the kid who came back home in pieces.

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