21 Steps

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The soldier’s gait was careful as he took his 21 steps, clearly rehearsed, from one side of the black mat to the other. His legs seemed to move on their own as his torso and head remained rigid with perfect posture. His footfalls were exact, measured and thorough. He stopped at the other end of the mat, clicked his heels together ceremoniously, and held his gun over his shoulder. After several seconds, he turned his body to the side, shifting his weapon. And shortly after, that, he took another 21 steps to the other side.

I watched the soldier for a dozen or so minutes and felt the solemnity of his position, the exactness of his duty. The entire scene was picturesque and the atmosphere was heavy with the responsibility of it all. The pavement around him shone in the light rain, and I could see his reflection perfectly in it. He marched repeatedly in front of one stone tomb, a single monument to the tragedies and consequences of war. The hillside rolled out from there beautifully, with dense dark trees, now leafless as they awaited snowfall, to the grey expanse of sky beyond.

The walk to the Tomb through Arlington National Cemetery had been haunting. The perfectly manicured rows of white graves, lost soldiers remembered by names, ranks, and dates etched in stone. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and two of their children were buried just yards from this site, a speech of his captured in stone around him as a small flame burned eternally over his grave. Hundreds of graves stretched in every direction, as far as the eye could see, through sloping hills and valleys.

I had heard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier prior to this, but I had never known much about it. The Tomb contained just a few remains, the bodies of randomly selected unidentified soldiers, American casualties of war from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War. These four bodies, brought to America to represent all of their fallen soldiers, and entombed here.

The tomb guards have been here on vigil since 1948. With their polished uniforms of black coat, black hat, black sunglasses, shining boots, blue pants with yellow stripe, devoid of rank to show respect, gun placed carefully on shoulder, the guards constantly patrol in shifts, day and night. They patrol in heat, in rain, in snow, and in high winds. They patrol on Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Years and the 4th of July. They patrol when tourists gather to watch them, and they patrol in the dark of night, standing constant respectful vigil. The position of tomb guard is highly revered within the army, and requires its own intensive training. When the guards here are not standing vigil, they are performing other duties, such as acting as honor guards at military funerals. They work consistently, and rotate through their shifts, in this honorary and ceremonial position of valor, standing over the unknowns.

I scrolled on my phone, curious about many things, learning that the first African American guard had patrolled starting in 1960, and the first woman guard not until 1997. As I read about how the guards had chosen to remain stationed even during hurricane level weather a few years back, I grew distracted by a few women next to me, laughing and chattering lightly. I looked up to see them, mildly frustrated by their disrespect, when I saw the guard take two steps off of the black mat and change his stance. He faced the women without looking directly at them, and spoke loudly. I can’t remember his exact words.

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a place of silence and respect!”

He paused for a moment, then took his 21 steps to the other side, where he began his vigil again. My heart was pounding nervously at the intensity of the moment. The women immediately quieted down and stood respectfully. Minutes later, I heard the man speak once more, when a child, who had been mimicking his march and movements for several minutes, leaned his body on the railing. Again, the man stepped off the mat and spoke, this time more softly. “Do not lean on the railings.” A further phone search said the guards only spoke when people were breaking the rules of the area, and that when people tried to cross the barrier, the guards could take action.

The rain picked up in intensity as a loud clock chimed a dozen times nearby, each chime resounding with weight over the cemetery. At the hour turned to noon, two more men carefully joined the guard on the mat and completed a classic changing of the guard. At one moment, when all three men turned to face the Tomb, and the commanding officer quietly raised a hand in respect, I got chills down my spine.

I walked away from the Tomb after that, thinking about the men standing guard and the men memorialized inside. I wondered who they were, where they were from, what their families were like, what legacies they left behind. I wondered if DNA technology now could take their genetic markers and find their families and identify the soldiers, and I wondered if this could be done for all of the rest of the lost, providing closure to families decades later. I wondered if it ever would.

I thought of war and atrocity, and when war is for the right reasons. I thought of political battles, and men with their guns. I thought of mothers worrying over their soldiers. And I drew strange comfort from the fact that I knew, here forward, that guards would be standing over the men in those tombs, every hour of every day, for years to come.

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refugee

Muslim1

Look, I get it, I get it. You don’t need to explain. The refugee camp was bad, I know, I’ve seen the reports. But you’re wasting your breath here.

Things are bad here, too. We have religious freedoms being attacked by homosexuals, and traditional families being threatened by very definition. We have cops being attacked by black people. Our political parties are at war. We have poverty, unemployment, people are divided on the most basic issues. Immigration is out of control. And terrorism! Our current political climate is divided between Hillary Clinton, a known and proven liar, and Donald Trump, who is just plain crazy. I’m losing sleep over this stuff. I can barely afford my house payment and my medical insurance for my kids. I had to cancel Cable and my gym membership in order to survive.

You’re still here? You want to be heard, I know, I heard you. We all want that. Will I just review your report? Okay! Okay, fine, but if I review it, then you’ll leave me alone? Okay, deal.

All right, let’s see. Born Muslim in Somalia. Grew up with your mother, brother, and sister since your father left your mother for a younger wife, and you were being bullied by your older brother, who couldn’t be punished because he was male and had authority over his mother and sisters. At age five, your grandmother had strange men come into your home and hold you down so they could cut off your clitoris without anesthesia, then they sewed up your sex organ, so that even though the procedure could kill you and would make it hard to urinate for the rest of your life, this would make sure your husband would know you were a virgin when you married after he forced open the scar tissue on your wedding night. It would also make sure you didn’t experience that particular  type of sexual pleasure in your life again.

It says here that you heard about women who were raped returning to their families who were ashamed of them. Many of these women were killed by their families because they were impure, and some of them chose to commit suicide. It says that women were considered less than men and that Allah created them to be so. It also says that you grew up knowing you must keep yourself completely covered at all times, as the exposure of any hair or skin could tempt men and give them impure thoughts, and that would be all your fault.

It says you grew up with barely any education, except that of the Quran, and that you had only rudimentary nutrition, and barely any medical or mental health services available. No clean water, often isolated for weeks at a time, regularly beat by your mother and sometimes locked into rooms for days for being undutiful.

Says here that when your government went to war, you started hearing even more terrible stories, like your friend who was brutally raped by multiple soldiers, and how she became pregnant, and how after the baby was born one of the soldiers tossed it into the fire and forced the woman to watch it burn alive. You say many starve to death and many others die from superficial wounds because there was no clean water or first aid available. You nearly starved to death.

Okay, let’s see, what next. Your father tried to force you into a marriage with someone you didn’t know, even as some of your friends were being married off to first cousins.

I’m sorry, but I have to skip to the end of this, I have other people waiting. You got out of the war zone and made it into the refugee camp. Some of your friends have been raped by the soldiers here, and now they have been disowned by their families for being unclean. You’ve been waiting for a Visa to another country for five years. But you have basic food and medical care, so that’s something new, right? Oh, you still have family in the war zone. Well, tell them to come here to the refugee camp! They’ll be safer here!

Okay, I read your papers, are you happy now? Look, I don’t mean to be unsympathetic. You’ve certainly had an ordeal. But I have to think of the big picture here. If I started helping everyone who has a story like yours, America’s shores would be flooded with refugees, and we are already stretched to our limits as it is. Come back for your check in in another 90 days, and maybe we’ll be able to help then.

In the meantime, though, here is a copy of the Bible. Seriously, your religion sounds crazy. Maybe you should consider changing? Good luck to you. Oh, grab yourself a chocolate candy on the way out, there is a bowl there on the desk. American chocolate is the best. I like it a little too much, you can probably tell from the cushion around my waist. Haha. Anyway, have a nice day.

Next!

**Thank you to Ayaan Hirsi Ali for sharing her powerful story in her book, Infidel.