I couldn’t make up my mind: “Do I go to Arlington prior to the service at the Wall or not?” I asked my daughter.
“It’s up to you,” Shelby replied. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
It was almost ten o’clock. The service at the Wall wasn’t until 1 p.m. I debated the matter in the hotel elevator and as we walked through the lobby of the Key Bridge Marriott. By the time we walked outside, I called for an Uber to take us to Arlington.
I knew Trump would be there. I had my sign with me from the day before. The one I held as I stood in the pouring rain outside the White House. The one that declared “Purple Hearts are not tokens to be bought and bartered. They are earned through blood and sacrifice.” I planned to leave the sign at the Wall as a gift for my father who earned his Purple Heart and whose ceremony I remember like it was yesterday. Better than yesterday, actually.
I wanted Trump to see the sign. I knew he wouldn’t be able to read the words but I wanted him to see that his policy decisions are costing lives. When you make bad policy it costs a lot of lives.
I wanted others to see that, too. So the Uber driver got us a close as he could to the entrance of Arlington, given the security measures they were taking. So I carried the poster as we walked up the sidewalk. A silent protest, if you will.
I had not expected to encounter other protesters. Not at Arlington.
But there they were – members of the Westboro Baptist Church.
They were backed up behind a barrier fence but they were located near the escalators that broke out to the sidewalk. They were loud and hateful per normal.
Several of the women – younger than me – were holding those signs that declare soldiers enemies of God and that God hates Fags. I had not expected to find them there but I wasn’t going to not respond. So I did. I stood there, in front of them, silently holding my sign.
“Don’t come over here and glorify a soldier’s death!” yelled one woman. “God hates soldiers!”
“Soldiers are murderers!” yelled another.
I said nothing. I just stood there holding my sign, not blocking the sidewalk access for the crowds coming up on the escalator. A man and a woman in their 30s yelled back at them. They argued for a God of Love.
I said nothing. Stood their holding my sign while the hateful yelled back and forth at the loving.
I wanted to tell them not to waste their breath, but there was that young girl in the mix. The one with the long, thick braid. She might have been 17 or 20. She was pretty, even hidden beneath the costume of the Westboro women. I wanted her to see me. Really see me. So I stood there looking at her as she stood there with her sign, the one she probably doesn’t even believe in herself.
I wanted her to see what strength in a woman looks like.
I wanted her to see what independent thought in a woman looks like.
So I stood there while the throngs passed by, wordlessly, shaking their heads, discounting me, too, I suppose. Most not even taking the time to see me or the picture I held.
I didn’t leave until the flashing lights started, alerting all who cared that President Thug was on his way to Arlington. A place he mocked throughout his campaign, when he said he always wanted a Purple Heart, ,when he called John McCain a loser because he was a POW. I thought of all the people I know buried at Arlington. People I actually know. I thought of the girl I met on the plane out of Minneapolis. Intelligent, articulate, the daughter of two doctors, who will graduate in a week. She wants to combine her love of medicine with her love of math and become a research statistician. I thought of how upon learning my father had died in Vietnam, she remarked, “I have never known anyone in the military. I don’t know anyone who died in a war.”
I thought of how fortunate she was.
She recognized how fortunate she was.
I thought of the disconnect between those who serve and those who don’t even know anyone who has served.
I took my sign and I found a spot where I knew the president would have to pass by.
“Back up on the sidewalk!” the Secret Service ordered.
No one was allowed even on the curb of the very wide streets. We were ordered back behind the grass on the sidewalk.
I stood my ground and held my sign up high. He waved as he passed. He thinks he is God’s gift to mankind, this misguided thug of a president. I have lived through a lot of presidents. I have not liked them all or their policies. But this is the first president I have encountered whose actions are motivated by hate, by meanness, by spite, by selfish ambition. His presidency is not unlike that of the members of Westboro Baptist. All he does is motivated by evil intentions. He has unleashed a spirit of demons upon the earth. He has incited hate worldwide. He is the embodiment of the Anti-Christ.
I stood silently, thinking of my father and the millions like him. Men and women who inspire us still through their sacrifices, through their love, through their goodness of heart.
Afterwards, we walked, my daughter and I to the top of Arlington and back. Passed by all those headstones, thinking of the families I know and the stories of their sacrifices. Thinking of their broken hearts.
We walked across Memorial Bridge, on our way to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, me carrying the sign all the way so that people could see it, think about it, confront what the day really is all about.
And as we walked, they stopped us and asked. People from Hickory, North Carolina and New York and Philly. Tell us the story behind the photo, they said. Even those wearing Let’s Make America Great again hats.
So I told them how some people think you can barter away Purple Hearts, get them the easy way, this president said. And how I know you can’t get them the easy way.
Purple Hearts are given for blood sacrifice.
And the grief that follows.
We hugged. All of us. Those who wrongly believe that a shallow mean-spirited man will make their country great again, and those of us who know how misguided such a notion is.
I was reminded of the words of Pat Conroy: “America is a country worth dying for even when she is wrong.”
Those were powerful words for me when I first read them some years ago. They were healing words. Words that soothed the burning places in my heart.
Now, I find myself wondering; Is that sentiment true? Is any country worth dying for when it is led by a lunatic?
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (William Morrow).