On Memorial Day weekends my wife, Jo, and I often spend a day driving around visiting the cemeteries in Richland County, Wisconsin. We look for American flags waving over the graves of relatives and friends who fought in our nation’s wars.
My dad, Leonard, who served in North Africa and Italy in World War II, is buried in the Loyd Cemetery. His brother, my Uncle Delmar who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, is buried in Cazenovia, Wisconsin. Another uncle, my Mom’s brother Theron Long, served in Japan near the end of the war. He’s buried in Richland Center, Wisconsin.
Jo’s dad, Lester Perry, a navy man, served in the South Pacific. Her Great-Great-Grandfather David Sommars was a Civil War veteran who lost his left arm in the march with Sherman in the Atlanta campaign. They are both buried in Viola, Wisconsin.
And my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather Edward John Long, another Civil War veteran, took two bullets in his spine Nov. 24, 1863, at the battle of Lookout Mountain. He’s buried at Pleasant Ridge just over the hill from his section of land near Rockbridge, Wisconsin – land he was awarded for his service.
A few years ago we made a special trip to Basswood Cemetery in the southern part of the county, not far from the Wisconsin River. My best friend from high school, Martin Elliot, is buried there in a beautiful country cemetery. Grave stones surround a church, across the road from a cornfield and rolling hayfields.
Marty, as he was called when we were kids, was a veteran of the Vietnam war. He called me a few years after he was discharged to tell me he was gay. He hadn’t sorted that out when we were in school. That was in the days before “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The policy then was “don’t be.” I have always wondered what that must have been like for him – and the thousands of men and women like him who served under those circumstances in all of our nation’s wars.
As we searched for his head stone, I remembered attending Martin’s funeral in 1995 near his home in Key West, Florida. I sat in a packed church behind his father and step-mother. I recalled that at my invitation Martin had come to worship, and later had become a member of, our church in Ithaca. I wondered if our neighbors and friends who had welcomed him when we were teenagers would have done the same had they known what he would not have dared to tell them then – had he known it himself. I thank God that we are, most of us, more open-minded today.
Jo spotted Martin’s stone high up on the hillside in the Elliot family plot. To my surprise there was no flag honoring his service. I had come to take a picture of Marty’s flag.
I looked around at the hundreds of flags that marked the graves of other service men and women. I decided maybe it would be all right to borrow one just for a few minutes. Marty would have thought that was silly. No doubt he was laughing at me from somewhere in heaven. I didn’t care.
As I snapped the picture I thought to myself, “It is only right that he receive the same honor as everyone who served.”
I owed him that much. We all do.