The following are my reflections from last year after visiting the soldiers’ boots display from the Fisher House Hero & Remembrance Run, Walk or Roll. The boots are assembled in front of Fort Hood’s III Corps Headquarters immediately following the event. This year, the third at Fort Hood, it is Saturday at 8 a.m., with all participants in place by 7:30 a.m. at III Corps’ Sadowski Field.
It began when I brushed a blade of faded grass from his cheek. It was just a small gesture, but I felt a connection with this young soldier, even though he was a mere image in a photograph.
And so, as I walked among the boots that were arranged in neat rows in the field before the III Corps headquarters building, I began to clean off the images of every photo attached to a combat boot upon which a bit of dirt or grass adhered.
A few were really dirty and the faces were obscured. The smiles and the expressions on their faces were hidden. It was a privilege to help reveal these images to the people who would come to visit in the coming days. I started to talk to them. Does that sound crazy? Maybe, a little. But, I wasn’t talking to the inanimate photograph or boot on which it hung — I was talking to the living person he or she once was.
I looked at the faces, read the names and then I started saying things like, “There you go, Timothy. I’ll bet you went by Tim.” Or, “There, that’s better, James.” I would be surprised to find a boot that had the photo of someone we had known on it. Those made me cry.
I glanced at David’s picture and recalled that his widow had asked me to smile at him when I came across his picture. So, I did. But then I cried. Some of them look so happy — frozen in time during better days, of course. But that made it only more heartbreaking, I think. Some were photos of dads holding newborn babies, or wedding photos, or just the bride who had been a soldier. I had to bend down quite a lot to clear away the debris and, having just run the Remembrance Run in the morning, I was a little sore.
My knees, particularly my left, had begun hurting while I was running. And it was much more sore now. But I could not stop after I’d begun. And now I felt I had to go down as many rows as possible to ensure that no one’s face was hidden and no name was covered up.
I also had to lift bootlaces up and tuck them into the tops of boots after discovering some with the lace or laces draped across a Marine’s face, or an airman’s or a Navy Seal. And of course, so many soldiers. A little American flag stands up inside each boot and an upside down empty water bottle, the 20 ounce plastic type, is used to keep the boot erect. Most of the time it works. I tried to lift a couple up to full height; I moved some flags so they were tall and proud, all six inches of them, instead of crumpled up, partially hidden in the boot.
I even tried to pull up some of the boots and push down the bottles to try to keep them from folding over. Those reminded me of down-trodden, forlorn people, dressed in brown robes, or black, depending on the boot color. They looked sad and defeated. And I didn’t want the service member whose photo and name were affixed to that boot to seem that way. These were proud people, proud to serve their country, proud to wear the uniform of whatever service they’d joined.
I cried because they were so young, most of them. There were definitely some more mature, more senior people in the mix, but most of them were young. Too young. And it made my heart hurt.
I cried for their moms and dads and other loved ones who would always feel the loss. And I cried because there were so many. I thought of parents who would name their child Augustus and have such dreams for him. Or who called a daughter Juana, which is the female form of John in Spanish. A sort of “plain name,” but oh, that beautiful countenance I beheld in the photograph.
Once again, what dreams and hopes did her parents have for her? The boot display that follows the Fisher House Remembrance Run, Walk, or Roll lasts for days afterwards, until Veterans Day, and it is much more than a static display of boots.
As I witnessed last year, there are visitors to the site all hours of the day and night. Many know someone who’s pictured there, many do not. They just want to pay their respects to those who wore the uniform, who swore to defend the Constitution of the United States in their oath, who laid down their lives for a friend.
The run, walk, roll and the boots that line the route and then stand across the field for days after comprise a community event. The entire event actually builds community and reminds us all what we have in common and what is so special about those who are called to this life of service. May they rest in peace, and may they always be remembered for the sacrifices they made.
Plucking a blade of withered grass off a picture is a small gesture, but it had such a profound impact on me. And it made me so very grateful, too, for the life I have been given, for the heroes I have known and still know. We are all like that grass, it reminds us in scripture: here today and gone tomorrow.
We must live to honor the memory of those who left too soon. And I know that will always be my challenge. I never want to forget. I hope none of us do.
Lynda MacFarland is the wife of the III Corps and Fort Hood commanding general. She is a proud Army wife, mom and advacate for military famiies.