The Making of an American Patriot

The Making of an American Patriot

We took our first family trip in almost 6 years last month.  This is no small feat, because the last time we took a family vacation, my husband and I only had two children.  Now we have four.  We flew over our kids’ school spring break to visit my brother (an Army major currently working at the Pentagon) and his family in Washington, D.C.

I knew this trip would be particularly significant to my daughter.  She is our oldest child (ten years old), and I knew that this would be our opportunity to really inculcate her with a respect for American history on a scale that simply isn’t possible where we live (in the greater Puget Sound area of Washington state).  When you live out west, there are very few things that tie back to the founding of our country.  We have “old” things that have historical meaning, but Washington didn’t become a state until 1889, more than a hundred years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Because she is our only child at the moment who is old enough and mature enough to appreciate what we wanted to show her (our three sons are 8 and a half, 4, and 13 months old, and our oldest son is on the autism spectrum), my husband and I planned for a special day out with just her, in the city, while my sister-in-law graciously watched her brothers for us.

While she was thrilled to finally see landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial up close (she is a Civil War history buff and Lincoln is her favorite president), we wanted her to see the famous war memorials that are also on the National Mall.  We spent quite a lot of time at the World War II Memorial, taking in details and talking about the size and scope of the war.

inscription plaque
The dedication plaque at the World War II Memorial. My daughter is on the right. The day was clear, but bitterly cold.

This was my husband’s and my first visit to this memorial as well (it had not been built when we last visited D.C.), and it awed us.  Seeing the memorial in real life is nothing like seeing pictures of it.  And then we came to the Freedom Wall.

Gold Star Wall
Looking at the wall of Gold Stars at the rear of the memorial plaza.

There is nothing like a visual representation of what the cost of fighting tyranny and preserving freedom actually means in numbers.

wall description
The meaning of the Freedom Wall.

We left the World War II Memorial feeling very reflective.  Once having visited it, you can see why it has so much meaning to those who served in the war.

Our next stop was the Korean War Memorial.  We were moving forward in history.  The memorial has an almost eerie feeling to it, between the images of soldiers etched on the black granite wall and the statues of soldiers forever marching onward.

Korean War Memorial
The Korean War Memorial

We made an honest attempt to explain the Korean War to a ten-year-old.  Not the easiest of tasks, let me tell you.  The one thing she did notice was the large Korean tour group who was there at the same time we were.  “They came to remember the soldiers, too,” she said to me.

After our visit to the Lincoln Memorial, we continued our loop and walked toward the Vietnam Wall.  Our first stop was The Three Soldiers.

three soldiers
The Three Soldiers statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

But the statue doesn’t have the same visceral punch as looking at all the names on the wall.

vietnam wall
The Vietnam Wall

My husband stopped to get a couple of sheets of paper and a pencil to take a rubbing.  With the help of the Virtual Wall, we located the panel with the names we were looking for – the name of a classmate of my husband’s mother, who was officially MIA but considered dead, and his co-pilot.  They were shot down in August of 1972.  Their crash site was discovered in 1997.  The co-pilot’s remains were identified in 2004, but the body of my mother-in-law’s classmate was never found (though a memorial service was finally held in his hometown in 2002).

A portion of the Wall, which contains the names that my husband took rubbings of.

To have a personal connection to a name on the Wall is profoundly moving, even though, for us, that connection is truly secondhand.  My husband pointed to the name and said to our daughter, “Your Nana went to school with him… he was a friend of hers.”  We watched her eyes go round, and then I saw her slowly take in all the names on the panel.  And then she looked to her right, and then her left… and I could see the wheels turning in her head.

“Every name up there is a real person who died in the Vietnam War,” I whispered to her.  She nodded.

As we slowly walked away, a group of high school kids passed us by.  They were talking loudly and completely ignoring the Wall – they were a part of one of the many school groups that were out on trips that day.  My daughter shot them an angry glare – she had read the signs that asked for quiet and respect.  “Mom,” she hissed in a low voice, “why are they doing that?  Don’t they know any better?”

“They obviously don’t, but you do,” I replied.  I was proud of her.  Even though she can’t yet understand fully understand the scope of what a war means – and very few ten-year-olds can – her mind had been stretched enough to realize that the names on a granite slab, and the stars on a wall, stood for real people.  Men and women who fought and died for our country.

We saw many more sights with her that day.  The true highlight of our day for her was visiting Ford’s Theatre, because she is deeply fascinated by President Lincoln and his assassination and death.  She sat in the front row of Ford’s Theatre and said, “I can’t believe I’m really in here.  That this is where it all happened.  It makes it all seems so real.”

ford's theatre
My husband and daughter sit in the front row at Ford’s Theatre, looking up at the presidential box where Lincoln was shot. The theater still is an active playhouse, and shows are put on all the time there.

We later visited the Pentagon with my brother, who took us to the 9/11 Memorial Chapel.  No pictures are allowed in the Pentagon for security purposes except at specially designated spots, and the Chapel is not one of them.  To my daughter, who was born in 2003, 9/11 is a historical event, not something that she lived through and watched unfold on television.  She signed her name in the guest book herself, and looked over the list of names in the Chapel the same way she had looked at the names on the Vietnam Wall.

Her uncle walked us through the Pentagon (we did a lot of walking in the Pentagon), and in the hall where the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are located, my daughter met and shook hands with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.  Not many kids can go back to their fourth grade class after spring break and say that!

Even though her feet at been walked off, we had one more important stop to make.  Along with my brother, we went to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the Tomb of the Unknowns.  There, silence is not optional – it is required.  We also watched a Changing of the Guard, which I had seen before, but never fails to move me.

tomb of the unknowns
The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery

The idea of an “unknown” is hard for a child of the 21st century to understand.  My daughter lives in an era where DNA can be extracted from bone fragments.  That soldiers were buried without names is unfathomable to her (especially after I told her about the Vietnam Unknown, Michael Blassie, who was eventually identified).  “Didn’t their families want to know what happened to them?” she asked.  We will have to keep reminding her that the technology she knows is not what the world has always had.

We had one exhausted kid at the end of the day (she fell asleep in the car on the way back to her aunt and uncle’s house).  But later, I saw her scribbling down, in the journal she was keeping about her trip, about all the things she saw that day.  “I don’t want to forget anything, Mom,” she said earnestly.

She still talks about her “day out” with us as the best day of the trip for her.  Every time she says that, I feel so grateful that we were able to make this trip happen.  I don’t know if I can accurately describe what we gave her on this trip, but I’ll try.  We showed her the monuments built to great men who founded this nation, and walked in places where our Founding Fathers once walked.  We gave her the opportunity to see what sacrifice meant, even if she can’t fully understand the scope and scale.  She learned what respect for those who gave all means, and what it looks like.  We gave her a grounding in American history that no book or TV show could ever accomplish.  She came away from our trip respecting and loving America, despite of and because of the history that she had walked through and seen with her own eyes.

On our family trip, we made an American patriot.

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  • Jodi says:

    Absolutely beautiful, Deanna. Thank you for sharing.

  • Donna says:

    Thank you for your beautiful summary of the day out with your daughter. I live here in Washington, DC — actually Arlington, VA — and I love when out-of-town family and friends come to visit. That is the only time that my husband and I really take the time to explore the monuments and museums. Like you, every time I see any of them I get an emotional lift, and I tear up at the war monuments when I think of the lives that have been lost to protect my freedoms. We take too much for granted. But my amygdala still works just fine!

  • Marian Sauer says:

    I have visited there thanks to my daughter, Donna..She led us to all the sites you visited..It is truly worth visiting many times to let it all sink in..

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