What’s in a Name?

My hometown, Brattleboro, VT, has built a new bridge across Whetstone Brook to replace the historic but long outdated “Creamery Bridge” (which will be turned into a pedestrian bridge).

Although there seems to be a consensus that some person should be honored by naming the bridge after them, there is much controversy over exactly who to memorialize in such a manner.  I hear that a very vocal group wants to name the bridge after a local man who gave his life in service of our country.  — A similar effort a few years ago resulted in a bridge in the center of town being named after a young man who died in (I think) Iraq.

I applaud and agree with the motivation behind the campaign to name the bridge after him, and have no objection whatsoever to honoring those who have served our country, particularly those who have had to put their own lives on the line while doing so.  (If anything, I think they should get far more recognition, honor and support than many or most of them do. Without them, the USA would never have become the great nation that it is.)   Yet, I have two significant reservations with regards to naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier.

The first is that we don’t have enough bridges!  Brattleboro, VT has perhaps a couple of dozen significant bridges in town (though some are Interstate Highway, not local, bridges).  Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Brattleboro natives have served in the military over the years; and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice.  Should we name a bridge for each of them?  What do we do when we run out of bridges?

Second, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with those serving in the military, it’s all about your buddies. Going into a fight, you are betting your life that the men and women with you, and supporting you, will “have your back” when the going gets tough.  That sort of complete reliance on each other to survive in the midst of battle is at the root of a camaraderie and trust that I have often heard those in the service speak about, but which most of us civilians will never experience.

In the center of town, on the “Common”, are a number of monuments. They list the names of those from Brattleboro who served and died in every war since the Civil War. What’s important to me about these monuments is that there are many names listed. A fallen soldier’s name is listed along all of his (or her) comrades in arms who died in the same war. The companionship that sustained them, and which more than a few gave their lives in battle-for is echoed in these monuments.  They are remembered together in death, just as they served together in life.   By having all of these heros memorialized and honored in one place, it gives us who pass by a chance to reflect on the dedication of the men and women of this town to serving our country, and the magnitude of the losses we’ve experienced in the fight to keep this country free.

Therefore, while naming a bridge after a single fallen soldier will honor that individual’s memory, and provides closure and solace to those they leave behind, it in effect dishonors the very thing that they and their comrades risked their lives to preserve – the lives of their fellow comrades in arms.   From what I’ve heard WWI, WWII and younger veterans all say when lauded for their service, I also think that most of those who have died while serving this country would be unhappy to hear that their sacrifice is being honored above the sacrifices of so many of their fellow servicemen.  Therefore, listing the fallen on a monument that honors all fallen soldiers from the same war together, and in a place where soldiers from all other wars are similarly honored, is (to me) much more appropriate, and provides a fitting way for us as a people to remember and honor those who gave their lives that we might remain a free and democratic country.

So, I ask the Selectpersons of Brattleboro to consider carefully whether it is appropriate to honor a single servicemen when naming this bridge.  Also, we must consider that the person we will memorialize through having their name on this bridge says something about who we are as a town, and what we think is important to be remembered about our community in years to come.  While every life is important, and the loss of even a single soldier in battle is a disaster to those who knew and loved them, no soldier (at least in this era) achieves victory by fighting alone.  Every soldier that has fallen was part of a community, a community they were fighting to preserve.  Let’s honor what they felt was worth giving their life-for.

For me, a bridge is about connection and community, about bridging gaps and making paths were no path existed before.  Therefore, whomever we name this bridge after should be a person whose life impacted Brattleboro in a positive and significant way, someone whose life reflected deep concern for the community, someone who worked to bridge gaps, and/or someone who built paths were no path existed before.

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

A Memorial Day Prayer

Given at the regular Sunday Worship Service at First Parish, Lincoln on Sunday, May 30, 2010…

Before giving this morning’s pastoral prayer, I’d like to read you a poem that inspired my prayer and, I think, fits well with this Memorial Sunday.  It was written by Sgt. James Lenihan, a veteran who passed away in 2007.  He is known to have written only one poem in his life, describing his feelings after killing an enemy soldier in 1944.  Here it is:

A Warrior’s Poem: “Murder–So Foul”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise,
The strangest thing happened to me
I began to cry.

He was so young, so very young
And Fear was in his eyes,
He had left his home in Germany
And came to Holland to die.

And what about his Family
were they not praying for him?
Thank God they couldn’t see their son
And the man that had murdered him.

I knelt beside him
And held his hand–
I begged his forgiveness
Did he understand?

It was the War
And he was the enemy
If I hadn’t shot him
He would have shot me.

I saw he was dying
And I called him “Brother”
But he gasped out one word
And that word was “Mother.”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise
A part of me died with Him
When Death came to close
His eyes.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember all those who fought and died for this, our Nation, but we also remember that those who died fighting against us had mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, spouses, sons and daughters – just like us – who are grieving their loss, as we grieve ours.  We remember that in War there is loss and pain for all involved, affecting a community that extends far beyond the battlefield in time and in space.

Holy Spirit, we come before you this morning, remembering the losses we and those we love experience as a result of War.  We remember the pain and anguish that many, soldiers and loved ones alike, have endured for years after those battlefield experiences.  In doing so, we honor the sacrifices that so many have made in the name of freedom and in defense of this country.  We ask, Holy Spirit, that you work in us, and in those we confront as enemies, to bring peace, healing and understanding, so that armed conflict and hate no longer come between us.  Instead, let Your Love and understanding embrace and fill all of us.

We also lift up those who are battling in other ways at this time: justice or job loss, illness, and other crises in their personal lives: battling the effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and those who are still seeking to recover and rebuild from the effects of the earthquake in Haiti and other natural disasters.  We ask that your spirit, love and healing fill and strengthen them, and enable us, individually and as a community, to support them in their times of spiritual and material need.

Thank You, Holy Spirit, for Your presence, Your guidance, Your Love, and Your healing power working in and through us.

Amen.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).