Prior to going to a Nationals game that summer, social studies teacher Ed Tiernan and I went to Arlington National Cemetery. I had a field trip in mind. I’ve witnessed ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and I wanted my students to participate in a wreath laying ceremony. But I wanted more than that. Ed and I took the short walk over to The Arlington Memorial Amphitheater. That is a beautiful structure, white marble all around, rows and rows of the same and thoroughly elegant. How could I incorporate that into my field trip? I would have to think on this.
I called the appropriate office in Arlington and scheduled the wreath laying for September 28th. Now who to lay the wreath? Of course I chose Ian as he was the NJROTC cadet commander. I asked for volunteers, and Elizabeth raised her hand. I asked her why she wanted to participate. "I don’t know anything about the military.” Good enough for me. I wanted something else to do besides the ceremony. I thought while running on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail. Let’s see…war…glory…bravery…combat…killing…peace…pacifist. I got it!
I looked up pacifist organizations in D.C. and came across the "Friends Committee on National Legislation.” I called and explained my students would be participating in a Wreath Laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and “I was hoping to add a speaker who could speak to military issues from a pacifist philosophy." “We have Matt Southworth. He is an Iraq combat vet who is now a pacifist. Would you like him to be your speaker?" Perfect. I tried to arrange the meeting at the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater, but that was denied. We could wing a location once we were there. To prep for this field trip, I taught a unit on patriotism using lessons from my U.S. history course, a segment on patriotism from CBS News Sunday Morning, President Bush 41 accepting a patriotism award, and a reading about “The Unknown Soldier” at Arlington. I also used excerpts from Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism by Roger Wilkins. He worked in the Lyndon Johnson administration and was active in the Civil Rights movement.
In addition to above lessons, one the most powerful example of patriotism I presented was the movie Taking Chance. If you haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing and watch it. It’s available on Amazon.
Taking Chance is the true story of a Marine Lieutenant Colonel Mike Strobel (Kevin Bacon) who escorts a fallen Marine, Private First Class Chance Phelps back to his parents in Wyoming. I knew little of this process prior to this movie other than that the fallen arrived at Dover Air Force Base. The story follows Strobel’s experiences from his home in Virginia, to Dover Mortuary, which demonstrates how they clean the bodies (one nurse said, "It was an honor to care for him") and the protocol of rendering honors (saluting the flag-draped coffin) at various points. We follow Strobel to the Minnesota airport where he comes across another escort. That is one of the more powerful scenes as the deceased is the escort’s brother. Strobel flies to Wyoming where he exorcises some of his own demons, meets Phelps’ family, and attends the funeral and burial. 2010 was the first year I taught that movie. Since then, I’ve shown it every year to all of my classes. “This is a movie every American should see. But since I can’t make every American see this, I’m going to make you see it.” It’s only about eighty minutes so I can show it in one class. I shared an article describing Obama’s visit to Dover Air Force Base and his participation in the rendering honors process. I wonder if Obama saw that movie and that inspired him to go to Dover? When the movie ends, I tell students to read the article. While they are reading, I pass out the most recent Department of Defense announcement of a casualty. I google image the person and add that to the announcement. If I were teaching Taking Chance as I’m writing this, students would read about this casualty.
Department of Defense Identifies Navy Casualty
Press Operations Release No: NR-160-16 May 4, 2016
The Department of Defense announced today the death of a U.S. Navy sailor who was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charles H. Keating IV, 31, of San Diego, California, died May 3 in Tall Usquf, Iraq, of combat related causes. He was assigned to a West Coast-based Navy SEAL Team. For more information, contact U.S. Naval Special Warfare Group ONE Public Affairs at 619-537-3184.
I want students to realize the escort process continues. Families are still grieving as we return those that gave their last full measure of devotion. As far as preparing for Mr. Southworth, we did a quick review of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and John Lewis. I provided reading and speech excerpts and gave students materials on the Friends Committee on National Legislation. So with that, I hoped the students were ready for both experiences. September 28th, 2010, was a beautiful day as we made our way to Arlington National Cemetery. This sign greeted us:
I pointed to the sign. “Obey that.” As the kids walked up to the Tomb, they could not help but see the row upon row of graves. I thought about engaging a few on the walk up, but decided to keep my mouth shut and let them take it in. As we arrived, an officer in dress uniform wanted to know who would be laying the wreath. I beckoned Ian and Elizabeth and he gave them a “here’s what’s going to happen” talk. The students were able to see the changing of the guard ceremony, which was quite impressive. They were grasping the solemnness. If you haven’t witnessed it, please do.
It was time to lay the wreath. Ian and Elizabeth stood next to the officer and they walked to the tomb. They placed the wreath on a stand as one of the soldiers saluted. Ian and Elizabeth then walked back a few paces as a bugler played Taps. Ian and a solider saluted. I looked over at the kids. The gravity of the moment was apparent to them. Ian and Elizabeth then walked back up the steps to the point where they originally met the soldier. An officer in attendance came over and thanked them for the wreath laying and asked them about their school, future plans, etc. I can’t imagine that ceremony going any better. Ian and Elizabeth represented Herndon High School with great dignity. And the rest of the students discovered one of the most solemn ways we honor our fallen members of our armed forces. After seeing Taking Chance and now participating and witnessing this ceremony, they more fully understood the sacrifices that have been made and are being made to keep our country safe.
The kids surrounded Ian and Elizabeth, asking about their experience. I was getting a little impatient waiting for Mr. Southworth to arrive, but just like that, “Hey are you Douglas Graney?” “Yes, Matt I presume?” It was. We still had to find a place to have our Q&A. The amphitheater was right around the corner. “We were told we could not use the amphitheater, but let’s just go over there. What’s the worst that can happen? They kick us out and we go someplace else.” So Matt and I plus thirty kids walked into the spectacular, elegant open air Memorial Amphitheater. I had the kids sit in the front row with Matt standing before them. It was without a doubt the best setting for a field trip I’ve ever had. During Matt’s discussion, a couple of uniformed security people noticed us there, but did not do a thing. I had interesting angles to take pictures, so I was able to indulge my inner photographer in that most dramatic setting.
A few questions:
“Do military ceremonies, like the wreath laying one I just participated in, glorify the military?”
Answer: “It is honorable to respect the people, but nothing can glorify the military.”
“In your view, is joining and then participating in the military, including combat, a patriotic activity?”
Answer: "No. If we had better policies, then we wouldn’t need the military. Our military has been used for personal interests, not the national interest.”
“Do you see killing in self-defense or killing to save the life of an innocent (perhaps even in a war context) a violation of the commandment ‘Thou shalt not
Answer: “Yes. Better to die as a martyr than take the light of God away from someone.”
Matt was a great speaker: provocative, principled, and, considering his background, no one could accuse him of being a coward. Not that anyone should accuse a pacifist of being that. The students heard a philosophy of life that is at odds with the macho, violent America they have grown up in. In the beautiful amphitheater, you could see my students processing what Southworth was saying. This was something new and different for them. He actively engaged them as, perhaps for the first time, they talked with someone who had a viewpoint most had never considered before. And coming immediately after the ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknowns, well, the students had a lot to think about. I hope they had interesting conversations with their parents that night.