What wasn't there was important - Reflections on Memorial Day

What wasn't there was important - Reflections on Memorial Day

Published by: David Cate
June 21, 2023

On a rain-soaked Memorial Day in Kingsport, I found myself, as in previous years, at the Veterans Memorial for Decoration Day. The day invariably churns up a mix of emotions and memories, and this year, it sparked a revelation.

Renowned photographer and author, Peter Arnell once shared on a podcast his childhood memory of witnessing JFK's funeral and the sight of a riderless horse. The empty saddle, with boots hanging backward, had left an indelible mark on him. Arnell confessed that this image drove him to focus on the invisible, the absent. Little did I know that his reflection would resonate with me during our local Memorial Day service.

He said, "During the newsreels, it was quite fascinating and amazing to see tens of thousands of people and crowds staring at this horse without any rider on it. And it must have affected me dramatically because I spent the rest of my life looking for what's not there."

Approaching the Kingsport Veteran's Memorial, I was greeted by three Vietnam veterans proudly standing their ground, the morning showers casting their reflection onto the marble. The Memorial, with marble slabs representing America's freedom struggles, pays tribute to over 2000 local heroes who served and made sacrifices in various American conflicts.

The Tri-Cities Military Affairs, along with the City of Kingsport, host this gathering of proud patriots annually, attracting notable regional politicians and veterans of various wars.

At these events, conversations often lead to profound revelations. That day, I was fortunate enough to meet Virgil Peters, a 97-year-old World War II Navy Veteran. He told me how he had watched the iconic raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The tale of his life post-war, filled with personal and professional achievements, was no less inspiring.

Virgil Peters - World War II Navy Veteran
Virgil Peters - World War II Navy Veteran - Photo Volume Interactive

The service concluded with an event that captured Arnell's sentiments perfectly. A styrofoam cross was brought forward, and attendees were invited to pin paper American flags on it while voicing the names of those they remember.

Korean war veterans approached the cross in powder blue suits. Vietnam veterans were close behind, wearing leather vests splattered with letters and divisions and hundreds of stories on the way.

As veterans of all of America's conflicts approached the cross, their pause and the utterance of names of the departed carried a profound emotional resonance. When they approached the cross, you could hear the names of father's brothers and the best of friends. The words were still fragile with grief, and even though these souls are no longer here, in their name, there was a presence - a deep connection to all the haunted memories of the past that still echo today.

This experience reminded me of the riderless horse. Absence does leave a strong impact. The recollections of loss shape our lives significantly. They can guide, deter, or even detach us from life's flow.

Standing amongst my neighbors at the Kingsport Veterans Memorial, I felt a deeper sense of respect and honor for those who sacrificed for our freedom.

We have a lot to talk about otherwise, but it's worth remembering that what we've lost, what we remember, and what's not there truly makes us huma