The Silent Footsteps of Unheralded Vets: A Poem

Monday, November 11, 2013 - 2:31pm
The Silent Footsteps of Unheralded Vets: A Poem

Rachel Button sent us this poem marking the parades that often go unacknowledged on Veterans Day.

Post by:
Trent Gilliss (@TrentGilliss),  Head of Content / Executive Editor for On Being
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Two people watch and take pictures of veterans during the march up and down Woodward Ave. in Detroit during the annual Veterans Day parade on Saturday, November 9, 2013.

Credit: Eric Seals License: Detroit Free Press.

Veterans Day passes many of us without a turn of the head. Some of us get the day off work; others don't even know the national holiday is upon us. In many towns and cities across the U.S., women and men who served in foreign wars and peacekeeping efforts go unheralded in the public eye. Sure, we the media tell stories and personal narratives of the heroism and sacrifice they gave for the rest of us. But sometimes it feels gratuitous — or like no one truly cares.

For Rachel Button, who hails from metro Detroit but now lives in the state of Washington's North Cascade Mountains, images of a Veterans Day parade on Woodward Avenue in Detroit remind her of the march that often goes unacknowledged. Specifically, Eric Seals photographs for the Detroit Free Press inspired her to write this poem:

You wanted the poor and tired huddled masses—
the slack-jawed and stubbled—
but we march alone on Woodward
uniforms stiff on our still-broad shoulders,

The Free Press took pictures.
Photos of men,
mostly men,
marching a street edged by empty sidewalks,
black men and white men
some of us in leather and flannel
others in uniforms which trim our bodies
into silhouettes framed by brass buttons.

Imagine the hands at our sides:
wrinkled, smooth, freckled, gloved—
scarred by cuts and burns, scrapes and time—
hands that held babies,
hands that held our heads when loneliness
felt too heavy to hold on our necks.

We bend into cold with something like pride
not for the battles we fought,
but because we’re still standing, walking, moving,
together, slapping our shoes on Woodward,
standing straight, even if not one soul watches.

For an engaging and informative read, I highly recommend John Carlisle's column accompanying Mr. Seals photos.

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Trent Gilliss is the driving editorial and creative force behind On Being. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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5Reflections

I don't know what to say in response to this... except that I think it rings clear and true.

I remember in high school, the marching band would get out of school so that we could play in the parade. I haven't gone to a parade since then because I've now moved to a new town and I don't know where the parade is. It's not an excuse, just me trying to express my sense that we've forgotten about the day we celebrate our veterans.

I live in Canada where we celebrate Remembrance Day everywhere with passion. My heart goes out to these veterans; so many living with their nightmares of the conflicts they participated in for us all, for the sake of their country...and they march alone. The photo is heartbreaking.

My cousin returned from Desert Storm years ago and it made war and wars a little more real to me. I agree that sometimes, "Thanks for your service" just isn't enough. I asked him what people could do to really thank a veteran. He said, "go to the parade whenever you can. It means everything to them. Especially the old guys who show up every year. Go to the parade if you want to show a Vet your gratitude." So I went and I go t the parade whenever I can. It is very moving. I don't have the words to explain, but you will feel gratitude and pride in the presence of these men and women. Ours in St Louis has a ceremony with a plate set for the meal for the soldier we hope one day will return- its a real tear jerker. It's kind of ironic that there are plenty of spaces for Americans who one day may come to the parade and share the experience.

Thanks for this post. Perhaps this public ignorance shows that the US often participate(d) in wars because of political reasons with not so much support in the population as the government claimed to. Of course, the families concerned gave full support to their sons and daughters on duty. And when a war finished, people in general didn't feel like the returning soldiers have been fighting for them but for some political reason instead. That is quite an abstract issue that is difficult to relate to. Especially after decades when you see that the motivation of military efforts are more debatable than ever (e.g. Vietnam). The impact on the soldiers' lives as individuals is difficult to handle for the officials as it would put them into a challenging decision. I'm sure that quite soon they would have to admit that there are only very few situations when to summon an army is worth while. So the veterans are left alone where no one hears what they have to say, and their parades are ignored as far as possible. Just my point of view.

Thank you for this. It seems you really get what these men (mostly men) have been through. Thank you for your insight & caring. My son is active duty, a Blackhawk crew chief & been to Afghanistan twice. It's difficult for all of us, but especially him, although he just shrugs it off not wanting to burden us any further. I loved the entire poem, especially the last part "standing straight, even if not one soul watches."

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