Last week hiking with some friends at the top of the Continental Divide, we ran into two hikers. One of them had an American flag sticking out of the back of his pack and my friend asked if he was a veteran. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you for your service.” Those simple words brought back a profound memory.
In June when we were hiking in Scotland, our guide took us to the Fairy Lochs. It was a beautiful hike – like all the others we had been on. But this one was different because our intention was to visit the memorial crash site of an American WWII bomber.
On June 13, 1945, three months shy of the end of the war, a USAAF B-24 Liberator bomber was on its way home to the US. It carried a crew of 9 from the 66th Bomber Squadron and 6 crewmen from Air Transport Command. Only one was over the age of 40. Most of them were in their 20s.
No one knows what happened, but as they made their way home to the US, they diverted over the Scottish mainland instead of flying over the Western Isles. They began to lose altitude and hit the summit of Mt. Slioch, lost their bomber doors, and finally crashed into the Fairy Loch, spreading wreckage everywhere. No one survived.
I stood looking at the memorial and the twisted rusty metal of the wreckage, and a profound sadness came over me. These young men had survived the war – they were on their way home. They had mothers, fathers, children, and lovers waiting for them. No one got a chance to thank them for their service.
As we walked out of that place – all of us a little shaken- at the very end of the Loch was a beautiful garden of water lilies. Did relatives put them there or did the universe plant them in memory of these young men’s service?
Shortly after I returned from Scotland, I had the opportunity to visit the armory where my grandfather commanded the Ontario Scottish Essex Infantry. He served in both WWI and WWII and he came home to a family and a good job, visibly unharmed. Seeing him in the front row of photos with his soldiers flanking him was incredible. The man I knew rarely talked about the war and I imagine that it might have been difficult to articulate what it was like in the trenches. He believed serving his country was his duty, but I wonder now how he managed to merge back into his life after his experiences overseas. Did anyone thank him for his service?
Maybe that’s why I still can’t shake the image of the Fairy Loch and it’s sadness. We continue to send our young men (and now women) into war and they continue to serve our country. Now we have bigger, even more powerful and precise weapons. Like the twisted metal of the wreckage I saw in Scotland, veterans who return often find themselves unable to physically or mentally cope with living. They deserve our thanks and much more.
So from now on when I see a soldier, I will go out of my way to thank him (or her) for their service. And when I see a lily pond, I will thank the universe for remembering too.