As I sit in my back yard by the swimming pool on another Memorial Day weekend, cigar in one hand and espresso in the other (to be followed by an afternoon cocktail, I assure you), I reflect on the sacrifices made by those who granted me this privilege. The freedom to sit and write what I wish, without worry of arrest, came from and has been upheld by a breed of warriors who, over the centuries and without trepidation or hesitation, entered into harm's way and made the ultimate sacrifice in order that American ideals survive.
"Greater Love Hath No Man..."
I drift back in time to the year 2004, in the spring, when I was living in Rome, Italy, for a period of six months following a tour of duty with the International Police Task Force in Kosovo. I decided to make a journey to the American Cemetery at Nettuno, south of Rome, close to where the Allied beach landings took place at Anzio in 1944. Officially known as the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, it holds 7,861 American dead from the battles for Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and the fighting that continued northward. The cemetery sits on 77 acres, and has a memorial wall at the rear of the grounds honoring an additional 3,095 missing in action.
I had been to Arlington National Cemetery, that 624 acres of hallowed ground that holds the remains of hundreds of thousands of Americans (and some foreigners), some who died in war and others who passed away later in life after service to their country, but I had never visited any of the American Battle Monuments in Europe.
I rode the train to Nettuno and took a taxi to the cemetery. The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery is one of several on the European continent with American dead buried in them, and one of two in Italy (the other is close to Florence). Some of the European cemeteries hold the remains of those who died in the first World War, and the others are a tribute to those who gave their lives in World War Two. The train station in Nettuno is close enough that one can walk to the cemetery in about twenty minutes. Unsure of what direction to proceed, I took the cab there, but did end up walking back.
All of the American Battle Monuments (as they are officially known) are staffed by an American, and the gentleman I encountered was polite and professional. Of course, the first question he had for me was whether I was there to visit the grave of a relative. I told him no, I had no relatives there, I had just come to visit the sacred ground. He provided me with a thorough outlay of the cemetery, its history, answered all the questions I had regarding it, and told me to not hesitate to come back if I had more inquiries.
The website for the cemetery describes adequately what one will encounter when entering, which is "a wide central mall that leads to the memorial, rich in works of art and architecture, expressing America's remembrance of the dead." There is a chapel, peristyle, and a map room, and it is on the chapel walls which the names of the missing are inscribed, all 3,095 of them. You can visit the website to see more detailed information and photographs. What cannot be conveyed in print is the humbling, overwhelming sense of gratitude one feels for the sacrifice that these Americans made.
As I walked the mall, the thousands upon thousands of white marble crosses, with the occasional Star of David, presented silent testimony to not only the lives given so young, but provided context to the numbers. It is one thing to read the number 7,861, it is another entirely to walk among them, those noble, brave, heroic Americans that fell in battle. I felt totally and utterly unworthy to be the beneficiary of their sacrifices. As I proceeded slowly towards the chapel I stopped dead in my tracks. Among the crosses and Stars of David, a simple marble cross posted in one of the rows stood silent sentry among his courageous peers, bearing not an inscription of name or rank to mark his final resting place as the others did, but the simplest of acknowledgments for his courageous service: "Known But To God."
The cemetery slopes upward, and at the top is the aforementioned chapel. The names of the missing are inscribed from floor to ceiling. There is other information inside, maps and details on the battles, but that historical data seems insignificant next to the surroundings and its occupants.
I went outside and sat silently on a bench overlooking the cemetery. I don't often pray, but I did that day, and when I got up to leave I said a silent thank-you. But, given the sacrifices of those around me, my silent acknowledgement, my failure to voice my gratitude, seemed completely inadequate. I stopped, faced them, and said out loud, "Thank you. All of you. For everything."
About the Chair: This sits in our back yard. It is a cedar beach chair which had, over the years, turned gray from weather. I told my wife about an idea that I had to paint it in honor of the Marine Corps, which I served in from 1973-1976, and she wholeheartedly agreed.