A special mission for the military
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Lewis Holston serves as a…
WAREGEM, Belgium — Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers are buried in American military cemeteries across Europe. I spent the afternoon before Memorial Day at the smallest — and the only one dedicated to men who fought in the first World War.
Flanders Field, a swath of earth about 6.2 acres, serves as the final resting place for some 400 Americans who died in the “war to end all wars,” as author H.G. Wells attempted to describe it. Canadian physician and poet John McCrae penned “In Flanders Fields” after he presided over the funeral of a friend and fellow solider in 1915.
For 100 years, the children of the town of Waregem have gathered here to honor the soldiers buried here. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, a chorus of white-shirted youths sang their country’s national anthem followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner” as they waved small Belgian and U.S. flags.
I had a seat at the remembrance ceremony among a host of Belgian and American veterans, civic organization leaders and a kilt-wearing member of the Saint Andrew Scottish Guard. I was there thanks to my friend Carol Brazle. Since 1986 she and her husband, Paul, have served a Church of Christ in nearby Antwerp. Carol is president of the American Women’s Club of Antwerp, which purchased a wreath of red, white and blue flowers for the ceremony.
The language of faith wove its way through the ceremony. Charles Djou, secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission and a native of Hawaii, talked about a Belgian priest who came to the islands 150 years ago to minister to a colony of lepers.
A little more than a century ago, American troops arrived on Belgian soil “not to conquer, but to preserve democracy,” Djou said.
Gen. Christopher Cavoli, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, talked about Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots.”
The men buried at Flanders Field are only a fraction of the thousands who gave their lives on European soil during two world wars, Cavoli said, and “many of them remain unknown but to God.”
Most of the 368 soldiers buried at Flanders Field died in intense fighting near the town of Ypres, Belgium. Inside a chapel on the site, the Walls of Missing bear the names of 43 soldiers whose remains were never found.
Cavoli urged those assembled to “celebrate the gift of life that they paid for” with their blood.
“We will see them again when we go on to our reward,” he said.
I took a quick stroll through the cemetery and noticed that many of the soldiers died just weeks before the war ended with an armistice on Nov, 11, 1918. At least one I saw died in 1919, perhaps from wounds sustained months earlier.
Flanders field is “the last witness of this great conflict,” U.S. ambassador to Belgium Michael Adler said during the ceremony.
Natasha Trethewey, U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014, read a tribute she wrote for those who are “buried beneath Star of David or Latin cross”
“To the living we owe respect,” she said, “but to the dead we owe only truth.”
A wreath-laying ceremony followed. For me, the most moving part was watching a 98-year-old Belgian who fought with the resistance during the Nazi occupation place the final wreath.
After the ceremony, Carol Brazle talked about her involvement with the American Women’s Club, an organization launched in the late 1920s by the wives of expatriate businessmen in Antwerp.
As someone who came to Belgium to serve the Belgian people, she initially had little interest in such groups. But after surviving her first battle with breast cancer in 2006, she decided to say yes to more of the opportunities that God put before her. She began working with the club, which now has about 100 members — less than half of them U.S. nationals. The rest are from Belgium and several other nations, including the United Kingdom and South Africa.
During her cancer treatments, Carol found Belgian medical facilities and doctors’ offices to be somewhat stark, sterile and foreboding, she said. The club makes 800 heart-shaped, therapeutic pillows per year for breast cancer patients. They provide the pillows to seven area hospitals. The club also sponsors four “breast care lounges” in hospitals, which provide places of respite for women as they go through treatment.
I’m grateful for Carol’s service — and for the service of all of those who gave their lives so that I can have the freedom to speak, to write, to travel the globe and to worship our Lord.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— by John McCrae, 1915
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