FLAG REVISITED : JULY 9, 2017

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THE FLAG IS THE EMBLEM OF OUR UNITY, OUR POWER, OUR THOUGHT AND PURPOSE AS A NATION. IT HAS NO OTHER CHARACTER THAN THAT WHICH WE GIVE IT FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION. FOR MOST AMERICANS, THEIR SENTIMENTS ABOUT THE FLAG ARE NOT SOMETHING THEY CAN EASILY DEFINE. TO MOST OF US, THEY ARE AS INDIVIDUAL AS PERSONALITY, PRIVATE AS A FAMILY MATTER AND ALMOST AS PERSONAL AS RELIGION.”   PRESIDENT WOODROW WILSON, 1917


For those of you who may have read the first “Letters & Leaves” blog called “FLAG,” perhaps you had wondered how I was explicitly dubious and uncertain “what to do” with my beloved husband’s well-earned American flag.

This extraordinary symbol of our nation was carefully handed to me by a decorated Marine respectful and kneeling with great dignity. The day was July 12, 2009 at Francis Joseph Toth’s Memorial Service at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery.

Up until the moment he passed in my trembling arms I had not cried. My tears were hardly withheld by courage or strength. In truth, I was screened by unsurpassed and frozen numbness. Unbeing.

As I received the Marines’s blessing, something serendipitous happened.

The second I touched the tuned meticulous folds of the flag’s cloth, my body bared my soul–unleashed my heart’s incursive, impalpable pain. Grief wailed without care of a widow’s unfair, precarious expectant dignity. My dearest father held me as if I were his child again. Yet I knew not who I was or why. I was weakened with this explosion of his loss.

I carried this holy piece to my chest and collected the shells left on the ground from the gun salute. His dog tag and medals clinked in my pocket, the only sounds in the air. Except for TAPS’ overture in my forever memory.

The funeral car was big black and empty. It seemed to drive slowly as a deliberate distraction across the stunning green grass speckled with white and silver stones from every age and war. My eyes fogged over. I did look up, however, in homage to the impending extraordinary architecture of the Veteran’s Memorial. I knew it was the first in the state of Pennsylvania for veterans from every era from the Revolutionary War until now. I felt humbled.

The hearse stopped abruptly. I was not sure why. Yet it took only a moment to know the reason. I did not have to ask at all because I recognized we were following the Avenue of Flags. I felt breathless.

In short time, my clouded vision flashed wide like a camera shutter opened to a far optimistic and less relentless reality.  My eyes only widened, brightened. I was stupefied. I held my husband’s gift from my country closer to my breast. Tighter.

Along the meandering Avenue leading through the cemetery, immense flags flew tall as the enormous trees like red, white and blue colored angels. So many! So many!  I turned this way and that way watching up and down to see the strong flap and hear the hearty snap of exactly what I was holding in my hands now. I swear I saw clouds open and my Francis saluting me. I swear he was there, my escort in arms with his palm to his head. My soldier. Your soldier.

Too soon, the black car continued homeward. Entering the door, I sat very quietly, stunned, exhausted, sagging. No fancy dinner or friends and drinks after. Only my lonely side of the cold bed. The darkest, moonless night. The flag next to me.

Forever months passed after the funeral, getting colder, turning to winter. I stared at my frame encased flag now and only saw the most loved and missing part of my life, my husband. This is the time I wrote my first blog, “FLAG,” distressed, depressed, confused who I was without him. Now the cherished memento seemed crushed in a a glass coffin forever, and then where would it go?  I was confounded with its presence–but never ever its vigor, its full-blown significance to me. I cherished it. Though it haunted me.

Oddly, one day in the spring I discovered an email from Indiantown Gap National Cemetery. How hopeful its message was. In my own words: The once vigorous flags along the Avenue of graves and wooded passages were starting to disintegrate, tearing and wearing from their long forever parades and timeless stars and stripes of flight. Our placards with age were splintering, stringy and losing their well-recognized clarity and astounding breadth. Their hearty emblems were fading from the continual elements of this land of the free with its harsh seasonal elements. They too needed a place for a proper Stand Down and deserved rest.

The email from the cemetery requested  the public to assist. To possibly gift their personal or private and sole family-bequeathed flags to replenish those tattering day after day in the hot sun and cold winters. With only so much financial assistance available these unwary days, what might have been a more worthy bequest?  Where else but such a splendid and strategic placement to restore the ancient-old beacons and flares of our beloved families and veterans?

I thought and thought and thought.

On July 9, the observance day of Francis’ passing, I stopped thinking and drove to the Memorial Cemetery office. I tagged his name on the case and my new address and thanked them by written message with deep respect for their precious award to us.

But I dared not speak. I could not speak. Tears would not stop. What words would I have said anyway?  I walked out crying even harder. Was this my dishonor? Did I now really lose him? Did I fail my rightful duty? I was still not fully sure.

Very slowly, another spring blossomed. I was feeling stronger now and more open to the changes in my life. My life without Francis followed with new insights, new confidence. New peace.

Memorial Day came with my customary red roses and grass-clearing on the inscribed gray plaque of Francis Joseph Toth. Vietnam Era. I knelt and prayed and I didn’t hide my tears. As always, I walked away backwards so as not to lose my certain reassurance of his safe resting place from the world and the flowers as symbols of my still strident love.

Driving away with reluctance as usual, I stopped again for another thoughtful unfolding moment. I looked high into May’s sunshine and huge white clouds. I then began smiling. I wondered with great joy which of the many and new flags topping the tall trees and stretching for the the heavens might have been mine and Francis’ flag furling–so bright, so lofty, so proud.

Donate to the Memorial

Tax-deductible donations can be made online or via the mail. To securely donate online with a credit card, visit https://donate.dmva.pa.gov To donate by mail, make checks or money orders payable to “Pennsylvania Veterans’ Memorial Trust Fund” and send them to: Office for Veterans Affairs, Bldg. 0-47, Fort Indiantown Gap, Annville, PA 17003-5002. For more information about the Memorial, visit www.dmva.pa.gov

“A Reminder of the Dedication, Sacrifice and Sense of the Purpose that Veterans Have Undertaken in Defense of Freedom.”

 

Flag: Remember, We Are Not All Alone

I lie awake as a solitary bird on the roof and eat
ashes instead of my food. I am withering like grass.
–Psalm 102

flagThe flag lies in the darkest corner of my bedroom enclosed in a black rimmed, triangular case which my best friend gave me three days before my husband’s funeral. The white stars on the union blue field bear witness to his death when I cannot do it myself. Like a red rose growing in January snow, its presence is incongruous. The contrast is stark, not hushed or entreating, and from somewhere in the thick of denial, a trace of the national anthem finds its way into the frozen images in my mind…”bombs bursting in air.”
Indeed they are… I should see smoke.
With compulsion and angst, I count the stars showing in the tri-cornered frame–one, two, three–glowing like wet, over sized snowflakes; and I ask myself if all the cased flags are really the same with only three stars set with purpose, like the notes in a requiem.
I wonder how they are arranged in such detail, these flags given at a military service. How are they folded so perfectly? Does a fourth star ever sneak through the soldier’s disciplined fingers? Does he or she sleep at night after officiating five or six funerals each day? Will post-traumatic stress disorder follow him after presenting them to each sad soul this day?  Is he or she lucky to be here and not far away in a faraway war. Maybe this is what is called the “private war.”
…As my own is tonight…
I am shivering with all these thoughts, and I want to scream. They chase me like ghosts through the grief in this room with willful pursuit and passion. I don’t know where to run or hide any more. For the first time since his death, I am weeping, weeping loudly. I am alone now. I am afraid. I want him back with me…give him back to me, please.
On this cold December night, the wind is rabid. Trees are flailing and twirling, bending back and forth, a mainsail caught in an unexpected sea storm, and I become mesmerized by the gale. On its brightest setting, my office light reflects the glare of this brazen, insistent flag as if it were permanently etched on the windowpane. I am nauseous from both the shift of the storm and the agonizing stillness of the flag. Why isn’t it furling?
What do I do with this flag now? What can I do with anything right now? It seems like a century but it is only four months since I watched his eyes stop seeing me, felt his body tighten against my heart. I held him close and hard. I stroked his sallow face: “yes, it is all right, my love, go where you must… may I please follow? I promise to be quiet. I shall not cry.”
What do I do with this flag now?
But the white stars and blue stripes remain mute and stubborn in their tight, glass coffin. Shall I keep it or give it away in order to heal? Shall I just hide it in a drawer, in a closet, under the bed? Bury it in the basement with his medals and packed away clothes? What would he want me to do? I cannot think, God help me, I do not know what to do.
My memories are so bitter now in the fatal gloom of this winter night when the wind is an intruder, and my life the last leaf on a tree.

In honor of Francis J. Toth
by His Widow, Paula Toth

Our Beloved Veterans: Past, Present, and Future

“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”—Patrick Henry

soldierFor the past five years on November 11, I have laid ruby roses on my husband, Francis’ gravesite at Indiantown Gap National Memorial Cemetery—Site C-536. It is placed on a high hill where the wind sweeps through incessantly. I am always able to recognize “his” spot from the countless surrounding graves because a bright,  orange gourd bird house swings from a tall red maple tree about five yards away. I do so on his birthday, Christmas Day, Easter, July 4th, and Veteran’s Day. The scarlet flowers might only last a few hours in such a wild setting, under the full heat and brusque chill of the hill that is so wide open to the sky and clouds. But it is my commemoration and blessed duty as a veteran’s wife, not to mention that he remains the lost love that lingers in my heart. I carefully angle each blossom from a north, south, east, and west view point: maybe because of my perfectionist nature or that I want other grievers to witness the length of time and devotion of my love I still hold for my lost husband.  At these times, I make certain to pull out the grass that overcomes the gravesite. I want everyone to know this is where my husband lies. And that he is more than remembered; he is cherished.

Around the granite rectangular earth-embedded stone is inscribed Francis Joseph Toth, his birth, and date of death. At the bottom of the stone, I requested a ritual message on the stone for the sun, moon, stars, and the entire world to see: “Love Lifts Us Together.” The inscriber erred by one letter, that being “s.” I had requested instead, “Love Lift (no “s”) Us Together after a song by Joe Cocker that we both adored. Originally disturbed and sensitive to the mistake, I eventually learned to accept human frailty and ignore the word-change. I knew Francis wouldn’t mind; he was just that kind of person—compassionate, forgiving, and braver than anyone I knew in my life.

Also marked on the 12 inch by 6 inch plaque is: “Vietnam Era.” Francis, thank God, hadn’t been sent overseas, but he had so many medals of which I knew not the meaning, except for one—he was a noted sharp shooter.  At the memorial service, I chose to display these, along with his home-tied trout flies and fishing cap with a pheasant feather that I still keep close by. His ashes are placed in a small copper urn. He was cremated, as we both agreed we would do. As his now surviving widow, I will have privilege for my own ashes to be joined with his someday. Although I am planning a momentous move from Pennsylvania to Vermont, I am meeting with my funeral director on Veteran’s Day to plan for my own burial. I had wondered what would happen to me and my remains if I died in Vermont, and how the crematory would possibly know where my ashes belonged—with Francis. “Love Lift Us Together.”

As the world turns and burns around us now, one cannot help but be ominous about this semi-religious day set apart from all others in history to honor veterans. For these twenty-four hours particularly, we graciously and sadly show our love, respect, sadness, and even anger about war and the battles that cause streams of never-ending caskets. They arrive flown by air from foreign and detested soils, adorned with the brightness of stars and stripes all so meticulously folded with the glow of our proud red, white, and blue flags.

As we stand soulfully in deep mourning for each lost love of our lives—fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, children, and best friends—an obscure but truly emotional community forms and combines in empathy with each other. Maybe for the first time in our existence, we actually bond. We hug, we kiss, we cry, we hold hands, we lay heads on shoulders of unknown persons. Our bonding is in our own way, but the fact remains, it is for the same reason: we have lost a beloved soul.

Yet while all this sorrowful grief-sharing is occurring, I visualize the veritable “band of brothers” of the soldiers who have lost, with enormous despair, a fellow comrade. These women and men not only fought next to each other, they drank, ate, slept, showered, and shivered with uncontrollable fright searching for Mid-Eastern IEDs, North Vietnamese  jungle booby traps, World War II minefields, and  poison gases in the trenches of the Great War. American soldiers have fought all races—Germans, Japanese, Italians, Russians, Northern Yankees, Johnny Rebels, Revolutionary War militia, and Red Coats. They did the same with French and Native Americans, Spanish, and Mexicans. And still are in what may be lied about as “inconspicuous” diversions.

My God, where does the Maginot Line end, I ask? Where are there no longer DMZs? Vergennes, Communists, Blitzkriegs, Agent Orange, and now drones? What about Putin and his new army of thugs? Do all these antitheses and dialectics prove that war is truly inevitable? Going on and on to the deepest of the depths of Dante’s Inferno?

New weapons, strategic tactics, espionage, operatives, and enemies becoming false friends may change. But battle and war never does. This is for certain. At the very top of the morbid chain of unfortunate infantries, Marines, naval personnel, Seals, and the dreaded Department of Defense is inevitably death, plain and simple.

And death is not still. It travels ignominiously to the “homes” of the fighters, wherever these may be.

And in these homes are individuals living under supposed safe roof tops and warm hearths who are falsely subscribing to “normalcy.” They are not all as gullible as the government may want to believe. Rather, they survive their daily lives in limbo, imaginary wishes, with hidden and frightening dreams of the worse kind. The closeness of death follows them too in disguise with ordinary, accepting, and vague addendums of pretense. “Yes, Mommy or Daddy will be home soon,” they say to their children from toddlers to teenagers. They reserve any kind of reassurance for themselves though. While they kneel at night with the kids, asking a Creator for sure deliverance, and that their loved ones will be spared and disqualified from this unspoken word, death–that thought remains unspoken by them.

But death, as it hangs from a tree, drowns in an unknown sea, sinks in a swamp, sweats in a desert, or crumbles under a mountaintop of rocks doesn’t only include the dying or buried, does it? Death is stealthy and sneaky, and clings to the living as well. Especially to our welcomed-home grateful and worn soldiers. Now, finally, though not nearly enough, and as a most truthful and accurate recognition, they are the forgotten ones. Some go so far as to say they are the “crazy” ones. Imagine that.

How can one in regular combat be unaffected by its threats and deadliness? Call it by any name at which time it occurred, the effects of daily warfare cannot be denied or buried in lies. Or especially ignored! I do not believe that human beings are wired to be killing machines. Personally, I have shared relationships with two Vietnam veterans where the intimacy was not with me, but with a former “brother.” One took to immense depression, hitting the ground at July 4th celebrations, and developed full body cancer from Agent Orange—and fought to the finish throughout it by his own strength and fortitude. He now lives quietly settled and content in the mountains of Colorado. The other volunteered as a mercenary (”freedom fighter”) in Africa addicted to violence and alcohol. It was a hard place for me, and for them, so we chose our separate ways. Though I am so very happy to report both have healed because of the love they found around them. I am gracious to discover both have survived the trauma and disabilitating effects of that ugly, unconscionable, unnecessary war of attrition. They no longer feel spit upon leaving the planes that brought them home. They no longer bear the stigma of “baby killers.”

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not merely a familiar and fancy acronym to rely on when things get rough in a veteran’s life.  It is egregious, threatening, and dangerous. We can actually date the feelings of suicidal reactions that go back as far as Egyptian combat veterans. One such Egyptian wrote 3,000 years ago that the feelings he experienced before going into battle as such: “You are determined to go forward…shuddering with seizure, the hair on your head stands on end, your sour lies in your hands. *

According to VETERAN, the Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, the Greek historian, Herodotus wrote about the Spartan commander, Leonidas, commander at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. “who  dismissed his men because he [knew] they were psychologically spent from previous battles.”*

Herodotus also spoke of another Spartan soldier “who was so shaken by battle [that] he was named ‘the Trembler’ [and] he later hanged himself in shame.” During the Civil War, “military physicians diagnosed…”functional disorder” as the “reality of fear of battle and the stresses of military life.”*

The first military hospital was founded in 1863 for “insane” veterans but did not last very long. Even author Charles Dickens was diagnosed with PTSD. At this time, Sigmund Freud responded to these insane conditions caused by war as “war ego vs. peace ego”—basically naming it “war neurosis.” Later during the Great War, it was assumed that these disabilities were surely the result of the consistent, non-stop impact of bombs and other weaponry. It was presumed that a concussion “disrupted the physiology of the brain and named it ‘Shell Shock.’ ” * Historical documents read steadily with similar and sickly stories about combat repercussions.

According to statistics, out of the 2.8 million soldiers who served in the Vietnam War and underwent guerilla warfare, at least 480,000 have full-blown PTSD.*

Today, “it is estimated that “normal” veterans, both women and men, experience  a “breaking point.” This results in fatigue and listlessness, depression, startle reactions, recurrent nightmares, phobias involving situations associated with trauma, inept behavior, unsteadiness in human relationships as a result of distrust, suspiciousness and anger outburst.” *

These are the stark realities of warfare: “psychic numbing.” For instance, “if I feel nothing, then death is not taking place.” It is harshly complicated and known to “shatter one’s human web where a soldier is on guard against promises of protection, vitality, and assistance.”  No wonder, our veterans are reluctant to seek help; they are barricaded by all these aberrations. *

I read three times the book by psychiatrist Theodore Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankel was interned in four Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As a Jewish and human survivor, he finally wrote his book. In the astute and humble pages, he affirmed that “an abnormal response to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” That is, “if some things [like that] don’t make you crazy, then you aren’t sane to begin with.” Sadly, it is still an idea whose time has not yet come.*

I am not a psychologist, a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, or veteran counselor, but I can easily see the writing on the wall. How many people care after November 11?

OUR VETERANS NEED OUR HELP NOW, NOT LATER, WHEN IT IS TOO LATE AND TOO MANY VETERANS DIE FROM SUICIDE OR SELF-MUTILATION. THE RESEARCH CONFIRMS ALL THAT I HAVE JUST SPOKEN ABOUT. THEY NEED PROTECTION AND UNDERSTANDING AND EMPATHY….AND FINANCIAL SUPPORT WITH HOSPITALS THAT UPHOLD THEIR NEEDS.

WE ARE NOT DOING THIS NOW. WHEN WILL WE BEGIN?

For all the horror stories, there are inspiring ones as well. You must not give up. I recommend reading Time magazine’s November 17 issue on “Life After War” for some very inspiring and commendable stories. The photographs are also remarkably resilient and hopeful. These are men and women like you who just “need a chance.” There are chances out there. My God, do not give up, but go searching anywhere online. Tomorrow or tonight, check out http://themilitarywallet.com/veterans-day–free-meals-and-discounts/ Coupons are available online and other information to assist you.

BUT DO SOMETHING AND DO NOT GIVE UP.

We really do love you, our dearest veterans. Please continue to tell us with loud and strong voices what you really need to survive. I, as one, am listening now. God bless you this 2014 Veteran’s Day!

You are so important to us, our country. We want you all back!!! We want you to be intact physically, emotionally, financially, and psychologically.

Paula

http://www.lettersandleaves.net/blog

*VETERANS: A Short History of PTSD: From “Thermopylae to Hue.” Excerpts from Article Reprint, 2010.