Memorial Day 2021: Clandestine Operation in Daylight

The call came early on a spring morning. 

A question was posed.

The former Marine Corps Sergeant, who had served his country in Vietnam, wanted to know if I would be willing to participate in a clandestine operation. 

Briefly, he described the mission.

I told him he could count on my help.

Next, his mind pattered out the details, and I listened.

He ended the conversation with— I’ll be back in touch.

On the morning of Thursday, May 20, 2021 at zero seven thirty hours Operation Flagpole Swap began.

It was a beautiful May morning, bright sunshine, clear blue sky. A foreshadowing of summer heat was encroaching Richmond.

Along Forest Avenue, drivers of cars, trucks, and school busses with tires whirring on worn asphalt scurried toward their  destinations. 

In their hustle, most were oblivious to the Sergeant and his helper in the Veterans Memorial Garden on the front lawn of Trinity United Methodist Church.

Who knows, we might have been tough to spot among the faded azalea blooms and the green canopy of dogwoods.

The Sergeant and his loving bride had done the prep work. Somehow, the Sergeant, now in his mid-seventies had coaxed the old flagpole out of the ground. 

On a previous afternoon, with its concrete base still clinging to the tough aluminum, the flagpole had been carefully placed in the bed of the Sergeant’s pickup truck.

This morning, the Sergeant, as if preparing to lead his men into the dense undergrowth of a Vietnam jungle came prepared. Buckets, water,  bags of Quikrete, shovel, two levels, trash bag, new flagpole, and precise tools chosen for settling the refreshed base were all present and accounted for.

And yes, age, combined with some health skirmishes, had worn on the Sergeant. But, he still had his core, his drive, his determination, and most importantly, his commitment.

Silently, his mind worked. He barked no orders at me. I followed his patient cues.

In all my years of knowing the Sergeant, he has talked very little about his experiences in Vietnam. Even though I am curious, I respect his silence. Sometimes, memories are best left unpacked.

This morning the chatter ranged from family, to Baltimore where the Sergeant had been raised, and the three young men memorialized in this garden.

I knew just enough about the Sergeant’s military service to learn that he had keen eyesight. In fact, this whole clandestine operation was about his still perceptive eyes. 

The Sergeant had noticed that the current flagpole was barely peeking over the tops of the dogwood trees. He wanted to insure that the American flag would stand tall above those trees for many years to come.

Years ago, the Sergeant, another church member who served in the Army during Vietnam, and five volunteers restored this garden. We followed all of the church’s requirements in seeking approval. In following the formalities, we also promised to maintain the garden until our last day on earth.

This morning, we are following no protocols, no blessings, no permission, no recording of minutes for approval in a formal meeting, no Robert and his rules of order. No, on this May morning, we are clandestine in daylight following the eyes in the Sergeant’s heart.

On September 5, 1969, December 22, 1969, and February 13, 1970, the hearts for the Jinkins, Ranson, and Olzer families at Trinity United Methodist Church were changed forever. That’s when they lost their sons to the war in Vietnam. 

Marker in the Veterans Memorial Garden Trinity United Methodist Church

I have no clue how receiving that news must have felt for each family. Even strong hearts struggle to recover from losses like that. And the mind, the mind wants to forget. But, the hurt is too deep, the hurt can’t leave. Try as it might, the mind can’t bring itself to forget.

To be truthful that is why I am here this morning with my friend, the Sergeant. I don’t want to ever forget those fallen hearts.

The new flagpole was in place. 

The Quikrete was working properly. 

With a few gentle nudges from the Sergeant, the pole was level on all sides. Even though he didn’t show it, I know the eyes in the Sergeant’s heart were moist.

I imagine on Memorial Day there will be lots of moist eyes. 

Rightly or wrongly, America, and its wars have been good at making the families left behind cry.

Who knows maybe some day those demons deep inside us that provoke us into war will find peace. 

A peace that isn’t temporary, a peace that will stop the breaking of hearts, and the flowing of tears. 

Perhaps, that is why we honor the fallen because we continue to hope for that peace.

New flagpole in the Veterans Memorial Garden photos by Bill Pike

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