Yesterday, along with my husband, our two small children and a family friend, I visited the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. The memorial is a beautiful and poignant tribute to the more than 16 million Americans who served, and the more than 400,000 Americans who lost their lives, during this war.
For those who have not had the opportunity to see this memorial in person, I must say that it is a moving experience: 56 granite pillars are arranged in a semicircle, each one standing 17 feet tall and inscribed with the name of one of the US states or territories in 1945. Two walls on the east side of the memorial feature bronze plaques depicting iconic scenes from the war: new soldiers receiving physical exams, taking an oath to the Constitution, being issued military gear, and engaging in combat.
The final two plaques show a soldier on the battlefield receiving his last rites, and then a joyous parade for the fortunate ones who came home. The freedom wall on the west side of the memorial boasts 4048 gold stars, each one representing 100 Americans who died in the war. Housed within the center of this memorial is a fountain, 246 feet by 147 feet. After slowly making our way around the memorial, we hoped that sitting alongside the fountain would provide an opportunity for quiet reflection.
Unfortunately, the scene that we encountered at this sacred memorial fountain was anything but quiet and reflective. Along the entire circumference of the fountain, we witnessed over one hundred people, from diapered babies to grown adults, wading and splashing in the water. People were taking selfies and posing for cameras, as if they were enjoying a relaxing day at the pool or beach.
But what was more appalling than the scene itself was that the entire fountain is surrounded by signs – one at least every 25 feet – that read, “Honor Your Veterans…No Wading”. For those tourists who don’t speak English, the sign also includes a picture of a stick figure standing in the water, with a red line drawn through it – a symbol that clearly translates. The individuals enjoying a cool dip in the water that day were plainly choosing to ignore the request to show respect at this hallowed site for the sake of their own comfort, fun, and photo ops. At one point, I was so astounded by the scene that I stopped to take a photo as a mother and father stood in the water, laughing and posing while their preteen child captured the moment on camera. I have included that photo here.
For many, it might have been easy to walk away from this scene with a simple shaking of the head, and move on about their day. For me, it was not. I am the proud wife of an active duty Marine Corps officer and the daughter of an Army veteran. I know what it feels like to give your husband one last kiss before sending him off on a months-long deployment to a combat zone, hoping and praying all the while that he will return, and that there will be more kisses one day.
I also understand that I am in the minority; most American families today have not been faced with the reality of sending someone they love off to war. Less than 1% of our current population chooses to serve in our armed forces; the rest of our country enjoys the freedom granted to us by that very small faction. The World War II generation knew all too well the feeling of answering the call of duty; of sacrificing themselves and their loved ones to a greater cause.
They rose to the challenge simply because it was the right thing to do. It is because of this generation of war heroes that those of us who have followed have enjoyed an unprecedented quality of life. We are forever indebted to these brave veterans, and should demand that they be honored. Their memorial deserves to be a solemn place for grateful Americans to show our respect for those who did what very few choose to do today.
More disturbing still is that the behavior I witnessed yesterday is largely representative of our society as a whole; of people who believe that rules are only intended for others to follow, and that cooling off on a hot day is more important than obeying a silly sign.
I’m sure the Marines who fought at Guadalcanal would have loved to take a dip in a nice, cool pool of clean water. It wasn’t an option; they were too busy obeying orders.
7/12/2015: A photo posted on a Facebook group brings to light visitors wading into the reflection pool at the National World War II Monument (and hundreds more not in the photograph). There are numerous signs posted every 25 feet or so that read, “Honor your veterans…no wading” as well a sign which could be understood by those who don’t read English.
That being said, a handful of military families weighed in stating they’ve visited the monument several times and never noticed the signs.
Another offered the following, “Those signs have been there for years – and ignored for years. I am torn on this though while sitting there, taking in the memorial I was offended by the people ignoring the signs and wading in the water. I found it extremely disrespectful and even made sure to point out the signs to the offenders. Then I thought of my grandfather and how much he loved “his” memorial and how he would have smiled to see happy children enjoying it. There is something beautiful in finding joy and happiness after the darkness of war. I could argue it either way – solemn reverence or joyful celebration of life.”
Here’s the original post:
“Visited the beautiful National World War II Monument with my husband and our friend today, both of whom are active duty military officers. I was shocked to see over 100 of our fellow tourists wading in the fountain, directly in front of the multiple signs that read, “Honor your veterans…no wading”. Adults and children alike were blatantly disobeying this rule, which is intended to keep this a solemn place to honor the more than 405,000 Americans who gave their lives for our freedom. Perhaps a greater presence by the park service could prevent this type of behavior from continuing in the future.”