Before spending Memorial Day in Washington, the holiday was merely a day off from school or work. As a Floridian, it was also a day for the beach and barbeque.
I knew Memorial Day was in honor of the men and women who gave their lives for us to be wearing our American flag bikinis and drinking beer on a Monday. But did I ever honor them in the way they deserved?
Not before I spent my first Memorial Day in Washington.
Not before I stood among thousands of people along Constitution Avenue where they weren’t just posing with American flags for Instagram pictures, but waving them with pride for this country and in honor of those who have served it.
Not before I saw people mourning the loss of fallen soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery – their children, their brothers and sisters, their husbands and wives, their friends, their fellow soldiers.
I began Memorial Day weekend in Arlington, Va., where I watched a thousand soldiers of the Old Guard place American flags at 250,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery. The media was asked not to disturb the soldiers as they spent more than three hours fanned out across the 624-acre cemetery planting each flag one-foot into the hallowed ground of each gravestone.
I snapped my photos with discretion. I didn’t want to disturb the moments, personal and emotional, that not only the soldiers experienced, but also the people who were visiting the gravesites of their loved ones.
It was Section 60, where soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, where I walked on a fine line of being a reporter and being a person. I couldn’t raise my camera to a man who cried in front of a tombstone of a soldier that had passed in Afghanistan in 2013.
As a journalist, I’ve been taught to be aggressive. Get the story and get the picture no matter what. But I was also taught ethics.
The stroll through the cemetery had my eyes welling with tears, even though I didn’t know a single body that laid there; I couldn’t imagine the amount of grief and sadness this man was experiencing.
Even with my long lens, I didn’t want to risk him spotting me. Even if he didn’t spot me, I would have felt some sort of guilt for intruding.
Maybe this is a feeling I need to overcome as a journalist. Maybe under different circumstances I would have felt OK. But I figured the media didn’t need another picture of a person grieving their loved one in Section 60.
I didn’t need that photo. I didn’t need to tell his story. I needed to let him be, as did the soldier who placed flags along that row. He skipped over the grave and returned later to honor the fallen soldier.
American flags dotting the greenery of the cemetery were a somber, yet beautiful site.
President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers on Monday. While I didn’t make the trip back to Arlington, I did attend the National Memorial Day Parade along Connecticut Avenue at the National Mall.
The parade wasn’t made up of typical floats and inflatable cartoon characters. Instead, there were marching bands and soldiers, service dogs and horses, antique Jeeps and helicopters, and muscle cars and motorcycles.
The number of American flags competed with that at Arlington National Cemetery. Each section of the parade honored soldiers from a different era.
One part, with a banner titling it “Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive!” had dozens of people holding up the photos of their fallen ancestors.
Despite the 80-degree weather, veterans came out in full uniform, as did the marching band performers and the motorcyclists.
While the parade’s atmosphere was light and full of pride, I still felt the sense of honor each participant was upholding.
They weren’t just going through the motions. This day had significance to people – a significance that I had never experienced on the beaches in Florida.