I had a dream recently that I was in Arlington Cemetery, alone, at night, wandering through the markers of the dead, searching for … I didn’t really know what.
I was confused and sad and troubled. Then a young man stepped from the shadows cast by the bright moon and hailed me, saying, “Are you lost, sir? Can I assist you?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t know really why I’m here. I know I’m not worthy to be here. Who are you? Do I know you? Somehow I feel that I know you.”
He smiled, affectionately.
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“Oh, I’m unknown to most people,” he said. “And that’s OK. Everyone knows of me, but few know about me. Come, walk with me.”
The young man and I walked slowly through the eternally sleeping residents of Arlington, and he paused at some graves, nodding and smiling. At some he kneeled and caressed the cross or the Star of David.
After some minutes he turned to me and said, “You know me because you were with me at Bunker Hill and Valley Forge, and I with you. We shared coffee on that fateful morning at Gettysburg. You know me because we adjusted each other’s gas masks in the trenches of France. We know each other because you tried to save me as our burning ship went down that Sunday morning in Pearl Harbor, and later I pulled you onto the beach at Normandy on D-Day as our brothers fell around us. I was in the foxhole next to you on Pork Chop Hill in Korea, and we shared the horror of a bloody battle in a Vietnamese rice paddy. And most recently we stood back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
I was still confused. “What are we doing here, now?” I asked the young man.
“Because, by living, you feel you didn’t serve your country as well as I and thousands of others did by dying. Many of those thousands sleep here. They, and I, gave up our tomorrows so you and others could have yours. We do not resent that or begrudge you. All we ask is that you earn it.”
I was near tears as I asked, “But I didn’t face combat, I wasn’t in harm’s way or directly threatened. How do I earn this? How do I repay you?”
He touched my shoulder and looked me in the eye: “You do not repay me and my sleeping brothers and sisters. You pay it forward. You do it by loving and defending your country and cherishing your freedoms and privileges and realizing how quickly they can be taken from you. You pay it forward by loving your family and your friends and your community, and you’re loyal to all. You stand by your principles and you keep your dignity and you live your life as a good and decent man and citizen. That’s how you repay me and my brothers and sisters here. That’s why we died, so many others hopefully won’t have to.”
He slowly walked away from me, then turned and waved his arm, encompassing the graves around him. “Earn this!” he said, sternly, and drifted into the shadows.
I awoke from my dream determined that this unknown man, this unknown soldier or sailor or Marine, would not sleep fitfully because of me. I also knew that I had found what I had been searching for in my dream. It was to earn what so many have died to ensure – my freedom to become a good and decent man and a humble American citizen.
For the privilege of that freedom, I am so very grateful.
And for those who gave their last measure of devotion for me and all our brothers and sisters, I will be eternally thankful.
And I will pay it forward, to the best of my human ability.
Harris is a frequent contributor to The Sun News Opinion Blog, at thesunnews.typepad.com/opinionblog.