Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day in Margraten

There was an American and Dutch flag
at the foot of every grave
Today is Memorial Day and as such, we spent yesterday doing what is becoming an annual tradition: attending a ceremony at an United States war cemetery. Last year we were at Flanders Field right here in Belgium. Since then we've visited the American Cemetery in Luxembourg and the hallowed grounds of Normandy so yesterday found us in the Netherlands at the cemetery in Margraten. And while visiting an American war cemetery is a humbling experience any time of the year, being there during a remembrance ceremony is beyond moving. It is a reminder of the sacrifices that have, and continue to be made, by our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in the name of liberty and freedom and it is something that must not be taken lightly. Regardless of how one feels about war, these men (and women) gave their lives so others could enjoy the freedoms we do today. And that was readily apparent when standing in the hilly and tranquil expanse of eastern Netherlands.

While we've visited many cemeteries and attended even more remembrance ceremonies, yesterday's was different. Perhaps it was because with over 8,300 marked graves the cemetery is large. Or maybe it is because World War II is actually recent history and veterans who fought in the War stood among us. Perhaps it is because of the the ongoing gratitude for the liberating army that is still expressed by the Dutch. This gratitude is demonstrated in part through the Dutch (and to a lesser extent German and Belgian) families who have adopted each and every grave. Adopted families care for the graves, visit and leave flowers and in many cases, have developed personal relationships with the families of the deceased who are unable to actually see their loved one's graves in person. Some of the adoptions have been passed down from one generation to the next and a few families have adopted more than one. There is even waiting list is maintained of those people who want to adopt. So actually, I think it was a combination of all of the above factors and then some that made yesterday's ceremony so moving.

The color guard
Dutch and American cadets in formation
The ongoing gratitude of the Dutch was discussed in a Washington Post article this morning. It is a powerful read and having been present at the mentioned ceremony it was all the more moving. Yes there were the typical speeches by politicians but intermingled with those were the personal stories of what the War and the cemetery means to generations of both Americans and Dutch.  It is one thing to read the words in the Post, but hearing Arthur Chotin share his story put a lump in my throat. Here was a 70 year old man whose entire life was shaped by the loss of his father when he was just an infant. And his story was only one poignant moment because there are thousands upon thousands of other stories that were shaped by, and continue to be affected by, the War.

Today, even as our country is in the midst of over a decade of on going war, many people feel distant from the battles that are being fought far from their homes. Perhaps it is too far away, too abstract, or doesn't seem pertinent to one's daily life. But yesterday, standing amongst both Dutch and American citizens I was reminded me yet again that no matter how far away it may be, war isn't a depersonalized abstract concept that only affects others for a brief moment in time. The actions and consequences of all those involved transcends countries and generations.

This is a lesson I share with my five year old son who currently loves to play soldier. I remind him that war isn't a game and has lasting consequences. He has heard me say this time and again and reiterates to me that he is only pretending because "war is scary". So as he stood at attention yesterday listening to Taps, I reminded him of this. And as the final note echoed through the cemetery he turned to me and told me how sad it was that so many soldiers had died. He was right of course but I also took that moment to remind him of the importance of remembering those who have given the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us can enjoy the freedoms we have today. After all of these years Dutch still remember and so should we.

The Dutch Air Force fly over at the conclusion of the ceremony

If you go:
Netherlands American Cemetery
AM Begraafplaats 1
6269 NA Margraten
+31 43 45 82 208
Open daily except for Christmas and New Years Days from 09.00-17.00

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