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A journey with American heroes
The Three Soldiers bronze statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. - photo by Photo by Fr. Dean McFalls

As you read this, I’m in Vermont.  Mom’s side of the family has property here, settled well before the Revolutionary War.  Perched on a small rise above a tranquil lake, the summer residence has been a home-away-from-home for the Smith sisters throughout their lives.  Visiting every few years from far-off Seattle, we kids also grew to love our mother’s favorite spot.

Though dad was a Cleveland boy, and mom grew up in Boston, we chose to bring his ashes to a quiet cemetery in Peacham.  Here, the pastures still nestle quietly and the gentle hills rise peacefully against the more distant backdrop of a fertile valley and forested mountains.  But today, the Fourth of July, this sleepy little outpost will come alive. We’ll have made our pilgrimage from West Barnett early, hopefully not to miss the famous Horseshoe Tournament at the quaint old Fire House.  If you search online for “Peacham Fourth of July Gala”, you can even see the 11:30 parade underway, featuring tractors, fire equipment, and horses, not to mention a bunch of kids.  It only gets better from there.  Everything concludes tonight with the annual Pig Roast and Strawberry Shortcake Supper.  As with dad’s services, this event happens at the picturesque Congregational Church.

What I’m missing on the schedule is an expensive, spectacular fireworks display.  God knows there’s no fire hazard. Vermont has been soaking in cold rains all of June. They’ll be lucky if any leaves remain on the trees for the explosive pyrotechnics of the autumn maple extravaganza. Given the fact that I was just in the nation’s sun-drenched Capitol on Tuesday and Wednesday (visiting my sister and her husband), this Fourth might be a bit anti-climactic. Walking with me on the expansive mall, brother-in-law Phillip was describing to me how fantastic the Independence Day ceremonies are. But the family clan must reunite, and Vermont it must be.

Phillip’s been stationed in D.C. now for a decade.  Formerly missionaries to the Moslem world, he and my sister, Debbi, returned to North America to ensure their kids would receive the higher education they needed.  Debbi and I began my visit in Mount Vernon.  There, one gets a comprehensive view of our nation’s first president and greatest hero.  One also appreciates more fully the harsh realities of a war that, had it not been for divine grace and for the brilliant young General Washington, might well have been lost.

Both fought against people they once considered their own

The brutal conditions in which so many soldiers died, more of them from malnutrition, hypothermia, and common diseases, would be echoed again during the American Civil War.  Passing by the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, I felt again inspired by the integrity and strength of our nation’s second great hero-president.  Both fought against a people they once considered their own; both lost far more men than their courageous hearts could endure, and yet endure they both did, until the long battle was won, and the acrid smoke of guns and cannons had drifted off to the West.

Phil and I cut across well-watered lawns to the Vietnam War Memorial.

A month apart in age, we had both been obliged to register for the draft.  But fortunately for us both, the lottery had ended, and neither faced the risk of conscription.  Soldiers were already coming home.  The last name we’d find on the cold marble monument dated from 1975.  What a tragedy for his family – or perhaps what a tremendous honor – that, just as everyone’s son was re-entering the turbulent and divided nation of post-war America, having lived in terror in a strange land of jungles and exposed rice paddies, this one young man breathed his last.  He, too, gave his life for his country.

My favorite place to be in Washington, D.C., is right there, standing beside the statue of those three bronze soldiers.  Frozen in a moment of surprise, they stare forever toward the 58,193 names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Whether the artist’s intention was just that, or whether he hoped to capture the sheer terror of a weary patrol suddenly being ambushed, I’ve always felt exactly the same in that sacred space.  It’s called “grateful”.

Having walked 3,500 miles for peace from the Bangor Trident Nuclear Submarine Base west of Seattle in Washington State, along with twelve other pilgrims en route to Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, I first beheld the Vietnam War Memorial on the day it was unveiled in November of 1982.

That chilly but sunlit day, thousands of Vets, their supporters, and anti-war demonstrators marched in somber procession from every point of the map.

Many Catholic bishops joined them too, as they were just beginning their annual conference, and that year’s primary focus would be on the question of war.  We pilgrims would be joining those bishops, fasting and praying three days in their hotel, in hopes that their statement might be prophetic.

How will they remember us?

The price of maintaining our nation’s independence, and the global quest for freedom and democracy, had taken a tremendous toll in Vietnam.  The dedication of that wrenching monument, seven years following the take-over by communism and the subsequent carnage in Southeast Asia, served to remind us all painfully that the bloodbath of American intervention had not achieved its ultimate purpose.  Discovering again, just beyond the three frozen soldiers, the more hidden monument to three young women serving the troops, I had to reconsider the cost of war.  There, in a modern “pieta”, a female medic, cradles a fallen soldier on her lap.  Another looks with wide open eyes to the heavens (whether seeing a helicopter or an angel I don’t know), and a third huddles behind the others, apparently unable to go on.

But they, like nearly every other uniformed American, will eventually go home, either to the USA or to their reward.  Those millions who remain in their native homelands will have to pick up the pieces, just as we did after the two wars of our two greatest presidents.  How will they remember us?

As the people of every theatre of war remember us Americans, even if they resent our intervention or the wrath of our revenge (felt especially in Japan and in Germany, whose leaders unfortunately brought down fire upon their own people by their ambition to enslave other nations), I hope they call to mind our fundamental values.  These explain why so many of those who claim to hate the United States end up living here.  They come as refugees, as immigrants, as illegals and as gifted people seeking a place in which to sink their roots and flourish.  They come because this country still is great.

I feel a special pride in this regard.  While my ancestor Alexander Harvey settled newly-arrived Scottish folks in north-central Vermont, others of our forefathers immersed themselves in the churches, schools, and government of New England.  Tuesday morning, Phil and Debbi told me of fascinating patriarchs in mother’s lineage: Relatives of Cotton and Increase Mather in the Puritan communities (one of whom, Pastor Williams, carried on a long, heated debate with the Mathers in regard to the Lord’s Supper, and had a great influence on the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards), faculty at Yale and Harvard, and even one signer of the Declaration of Independence, the pastor’s grandson.  William Williams (1731-1811) was a merchant, and a delegate to the Continental Congress from Connecticut.   In fact, another signer, William Hooper (1742-1790), a brilliant lawyer and politician from Boston, is an ancestor of my cousin Kim Hooper, with whom Phil, Debbi, and I had dinner on Tuesday night.  His mother, Marilyn, and my mother are already up at the Vermont property, where they have reunited every summer since their childhood.  Now I know why New England is home for them, even if Marilyn and her husband moved south, long ago, to Florida.

From the Vietnam Memorial, it’s just a few hundred yards to a tiny, lush island on the Mall.  Crossing a small bridge, you come immediately upon a semi-circular series of carefully cut and leveled stones.  Upon each of the 56 markers is the signature in gold, and the engraved name, of the signers of our Declaration.  There were the stones corresponding to our ancestors William Williams and William Hooper.  With the Washington Monument standing tall to my right, the Lincoln Memorial proclaiming freedom and human dignity to my left, the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials behind and also to the left, the entire array of Smithsonian and national museums surrounding us, and the houses of government plus the White House itself not far away, I felt a resurgence of pride about being what I am: American.

Yet, freedom is still worth the cost

All the dark shadows of our nation’s history: the centuries of slave trade that not even our greatest presidents had the ability or moral force to end (even Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was more about winning the Civil War than it was, about granting slaves the freedom he believed they deserved); the westward displacement and near-eradication of millions of Native Americans; the cruel treatment of immigrant laborers from every part of the globe (among them the Chinese, Irish, Polish, and Italians were well-documented examples, only later the more visible Filipinos and our neighbors from the South); the exploitation of cheap labor, resources and markets from throughout the developing world, coupled with a tendency toward military intervention promoting American self-interest; the fueling of drug trafficking through ever-higher levels of demand; and the more recent exportation of values and life-styles that much of the world finds offensive; are all among the many consequences of an abuse of freedom.

Yet, freedom is still worth the cost.  As Phil and I drove up from the National Mall, we passed a small demonstration.  Hopping out with my cameras, I climbed over the cement retaining wall shielding the State Department.  “We don’t mind, but they might,” replied one of many guards standing between the activists and the entryway.  Seeing the press there, and what appeared to be other free-lancers with cameras, I joined the paparazzi.  Three dozen youth had gathered with signs and bullhorns to demand that the United States freeze any foreign aid to Honduras.  “Stop the Aid – reinstate Zelaya!” they cried out as they circled around, attracting a modest crowd of onlookers.

As of July 2, the United States had not withdrawn its ambassador, nor had foreign aid to Honduras been frozen. President Obama was still weighing his options, waiting for action from the Organization of American States.  He doubtless feared diverting attention from the other major crises.

But what I noticed was the benefit of having the best, or at least one of the best, government(s) in the world.  What I noticed was how peacefully our nation makes its transitions from one administration to the next.  What I noticed was three dozen protesters demonstrating without being silenced.

Later, spending five full hours in the International Spy Museum, I learned a lot more than I’d ever known about how fragile our freedom really is.  If you ever get to D.C., I highly recommend dedicating at least half a day.

Suffice it to say that, for every American hero, and for every foreigner who has helped us fight our battles and maintain our democracy at home, there have been many more who have worked diligently to bring us down.  This was true during the Revolutionary War, which Washington won more by a comprehensive network of intelligence than by brilliant battle strategies or by sheer tenacity in the field.  It was true in the Civil War, and in every other conflict to follow, including above all the protracted, unbelievably dangerous face-off with communism throughout the world.  It is more than ever true today, as the threats to our population become more and more complicated, less and less conventional, and at times completely invisible.

Having begun my stay in Washington, D.C., with a focus on heroes, I would end by remembering the enemies from within.  Towards the Spy Museum’s final chambers, a video monitor plays out the stories of some modern spies.

Two of them sold their country’s dearest secrets for money.  Neither one was forced to do so; no one captured and tortured them; no one treated them with such injustice that they merited an opportunity for revenge.  Both had perfectly secure jobs in a prestigious organization.  In the case of the worst of the two, Aldrich (“Rick”) Ames, the chaos of his personal life and his affair with a Colombian woman who ran up his budget, led him to sell out his country simply for filthy lucre.  Ultimately, sources report, he caused the death-by-execution of at least eleven operatives in the former Soviet Union and compromised dozens more, including at least 100 intelligence operations.  In return, he received between at least $2.7 million, if not in fact nearly twice that much.  Yet he continued throughout working for the CIA, while living a more and more lavish lifestyle and feasting his ego.

Do some research, and perhaps you’ll guess who the other one was.

As for my brother-in-law, Phil, I could see his face turning red.  He had begun working with the State Department in 1985, the same year Ames walked into the Soviet Embassy to begin betraying his nation.  By 1994, the year Ames was arrested, he was about to begin working there full-time.

In the last room, a larger screen pulls together the entire exhibit, bringing the urgency of good intelligence home.  Rapidly featuring some of the most serious intelligence breaches and terrorist acts of the past twenty years, it pauses for a longer commemoration on the all-too-familiar images of 9-11.

The day the Pentagon was hit
Phil remembers that day.  When the Pentagon was hit – the Pentagon where my cousin Kim Hooper now works, directing an historical project there to make more archives public in the new, restored wing – Phil was at work across the river.  Standing at his large window high above the city, he looked down and could not believe what was unfolding before his eyes.

Yes, our freedom is precious.  It is also highly fragile.  While we must strive never to abuse it, we should also be vigilant in using it to advantage, not only for ourselves and our own people, but for all those who stand to benefit from the blessings of true democracy.  Perhaps I’ll grow just as much in appreciation of this, being farther from the fireworks and the bold public displays, at such a distance from the hallowed halls of government.

I will be up in north-central Vermont, where my ancestors settled recent immigrants from a land far away, and where farmers humbly eked out a simple existence in collaboration with the Indians who still inhabited those lands.  I will be joining my family, fresh in from Montana, Bellingham, California, the District of Columbia, and Tanzania, East Africa.  Others will be joining us from Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere.  We’ll converge by that little lake named for our forefather, gather to pray at the old Peacham Congregational Church where Pastor Williams once conducted services, and bury my father’s ashes in the hilltop cemetery where I knelt, in 1993, praying for divine guidance on where to continue my vocational journey.

I chose, first Monterrey, then Stockton.  But Stockton it was.  Only after having begun life in this diocese, was I informed that two of my ancestors - this time, finally, on dad’s side – had lived, died, and been buried there.

Life is definitely a mystery.  We see God’s hand at work in everything.

Even when His plans are thwarted due to human wickedness and the evil scheming of Satan, heroes arise from the ashes of destruction, dedicating themselves to the welfare of all humanity, inspired by the spark of divine life within, and willing to suffer any torment to achieve their God-given purpose.  These are the new saints who keep the Bell of Freedom ringing.

All of us are called to do the same.  My story may seem unique, insofar as I was able to be in our nation’s capitol so recently, and will be concluding my East-Coast travels in Boston.  Maybe my ancestry seems special.  But everyone has a unique genealogy, and a story to tell full of significance.  If my narrative has spoken something of our nation’s greatness, so can yours.

May God bless us on this Fourth of July.  And may God bless our nation.

Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Church, Peacham Congregational Church