Far more than any words from dignitaries, what will stick with me was when aging veterans stood as the band played their service anthem, followed by vets walking up with signs with the number of dead from each of America’s wars.
We can always use a reminder of the true meaning of Memorial Day, not just a day off work and the unofficial start of summer. Our traditions matter: the miniature flags, the wreath laying, the patriotic songs.
Monday marked Rancho Cordova’s 10th annual Memorial Day ceremony at the VA Medical Center at Mather – and we’ve been at war, in one way or another, for every one of them.
This one was particularly fraught because it was the last Memorial Day of the Obama presidency. The next observance will be under a new commander in chief, who could be very different from Obama.
Actually, it’s hard to tell what kind of military and foreign policy to expect out of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.
He’s all over the map. He’s buddies with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin but wants our closest allies to ante up more for defense. Trump’s “America First” platform seems isolationist, but if the U.S. is less engaged around the world, there could be more chances that a hot spot could blow up, making military action more likely.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton offers a more coherent foreign policy, but she is also more hawkish than the president she served as secretary of state. For instance, she supports a no-fly zone in Syria, which would deepen our involvement in that bloody civil war.
With California’s presidential primary next week, it was easy to get opinions on the campaign from people at Monday’s ceremony.
Tom Wentz, 75, a 30-year Air Force veteran, says he is for Trump because we need “something different.” Wentz told me he trusts him as commander in chief because he’s “mellowing out” and will surround himself with the proper advisers. After all, Wentz said, “Reagan was no mastermind.”
But Yessenia Anderson, 27, said she trusts Clinton more on foreign policy because she has a track record. Trump, on the other hand, “has shown he would put us at risk,” she told me. “He’s a threat not just to us but our relationships across the world, really.”
At this point, the race is a toss-up for Jesse Alvarez, 71, a 22-year Air Force vet who said he’s leaning to Trump because he wants a strong military. But he said that Trump needs to be more diplomatic in public.
“I am hopeful he gets a lot of good advice,” Alvarez said.
If he gets his finger on the nuclear button, don’t we all.
No matter who it is, the next president must remember that those are real men and women standing in those “boots on the ground” being sent halfway around the world.
It certainly doesn’t help the cause for his handpicked secretary of veterans affairs to compare unacceptable wait times for health care to long lines at Disneyland. VA Secretary Robert McDonald issued a statement of deep regret, but the damage was done.
Monday at Arlington National Cemetery, Obama vowed again to give veterans all the care and services they deserve. “We have to do better,” he said. “We have to be there not only when we need them, but when they need us.”
The president also honored America’s 1 million war dead by placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
But loved ones know only too well the names of U.S. service members killed during his presidency – about 280 of the 4,500 total in Iraq and about 1,750 of nearly 2,400 in the Afghanistan war. And those numbers don’t count all the non-American and civilian casualties.
That is a central and tragic irony of the Obama years. He came into office promising to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has officially, but some U.S. troops are still in those countries today. He also has sent forces to Syria and dramatically expanded the use of armed drones.
The man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in the Oval Office will go down in the history books as a wartime president.
With no end in sight to America’s war on terror, the next president apparently will be one, too.