By Courtney Howell
Washington, D.C., the city of memorials, monuments, the Capitol, and the White House. In almost all our expectation essays (mine included), we discussed getting away from the tourist part of the city and getting to know the ‘real’ city – the people who live and work here everyday. However, the memorials and monuments that fill this city should not be neglected either. That’s why I was happy to have the opportunity to take a bus ride to many of these locations throughout the city. Although it could be due to lack of sleep, two of the memorials almost brought me to tears.
I saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial the last time I came to D.C. five years ago. I was seventeen and in high school, perpetually freaking out about our time management in the city (are you sure we will have time to do all that!?!). This time, we were not free of time constraints, but the memorial moved me in ways it had not the last time I visited.
As I walked down the hill in which it is nestled, all the flowers and American flags presumably brought by loved ones hit hard. The names on this wall, the thousands and thousands of people who died in combat and as a direct result of the war, were people’s parents and children. Each name was a person who had others that loved them and missed them and miss them still.
These remaining loved ones still bring flowers and flags to the memorial – and not just on Memorial Day. It’s too easy to walk down that strip of land and see a black reflective stone that symbolizes a time in our history that none us witnessed. It will not be too many generations before there are no living survivors of Vietnam and no living to tell the tale. Take World War I – we talked at dinner last night about how there are no survivors of the war to push Washington to build a monument, so there isn’t one in the capital city.
It seems that, at least for now, there are still individuals working to ensure that their loved ones are not forgotten. These flowers and a laminated story were left next to the memorial. It is a shame that every name cannot have a similar story, however unfeasible it might be. Remembering that soldiers are more than pawns and a way to win a conflict can be hard when we are so far removed from those who were involved. I appreciated reading this man’s story and would have loved to read more stories. Knowing the background to each person makes them real and not just names on a stone.
On a slightly happier note, I got to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial for the first time – its construction wasn’t completed until after our last trip to D.C. As someone who wants to pursue a career that works for social justice and equality, the quotes chosen to be places on the memorial held special meaning – they are words to live by. Two in particular stood out to me. The first read:
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
The second read:
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the moral struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
Along with almost all the quotes on the walls at the memorial, these two rung especially true. In my opinion, we should all be working toward a world where people can eat, learn, and have dignity and respect. The world in which we live is not equal – and many people are quick to accept that. I’m not one of them. Call me naive, but I want to change the world. I want to make my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country, and the world a better place. I know I can’t do it all. But I can start by living my life in ways that promote justice. I can make my career revolve around helping others and turning the world around. If every one of us gives back to our community and back to each other, we can make the world a better place. As easy as it is to give up hope and accept the world as inevitable, we must continue to work toward justice. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. at the memorial, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”