Looking Back on Memorial Day

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10 years ago I was giving the whole college thing a second try, and about to begin an internship with then Sen. Jeff Bingaman. My first weekend in D.C. was Memorial Day, and I had managed to get a pass to the dedication of the National World War II Memorial.

I’ve told that story before.

Much has changed in the past decade. The crowd that day was vast (more than 150,000 attended), and so many veterans made the journey. Their numbers grow thinner every year. Of course, there’s a new controversy about our treatment and care of veterans (and not just those from World War II), a significant change from the high praise the VA earned in 2004.

I’ve also come to realize how young I was then, how silly I was: what an opportunity to speak to these men and women, but I was too shy and timid to approach them, or ask them for their stories and their names. I’m reminded of the wasted opportunities I had when my grandpas were still alive, of all the times I should have asked them to tell me about their lives.

I’ve had a number of veterans in my life: grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends. I’ve been grateful for them all. And looking back, I’m grateful I was there for that dedication — to see so many heroes gathered in one place, and help celebrate their sacrifices for freedom and country.

My favorite photo: “Waiting”

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Brian over at Epic Edits tipped me off to this project, so I thought I would share my favorite photo with you:

Waiting

A lone veteran awaits the start of the National World War II Memorial dedication on May 29, 2004.

So, we’re supposed to share our story behind the photo. Here goes. I’m hesitant about revealing the truth about this shot — you’ll see why when you get to the end.

It was April of 2004, and I was a student at Western New Mexico University. Earlier that year I was chosen as editor for the student newspaper, The Mustang, a job which eventually led to my career as a journalist. I had also been accepted for Sen. Jeff Bingaman‘s summer internship in Washington D.C., where I would work closely with his public information staff.

Somehow, I learned that the World War II Memorial would be dedicated on Memorial Day. Since I would be traveling to D.C. prior to that weekend, I applied for press credentials, not sure if I would receive them, since I was just the editor for a very small university newspaper.

The week before the dedication, I received word that the media credentials were on the way, but wouldn’t arrive in Silver City until after I had already left for D.C. I contacted the organizers, explained the problem, and was told I could pick up another packet for the event from their office.

After I arrived, and when I opened the packet, I was shocked to see that I had been given a Media 1A credential. This placed me on the closest media riser at the event!

Memorial Day weekend arrived, and Saturday, May 24 was the dedication ceremony. More than 150,000 people passed through the security checkpoints to file into the National Mall and near the Washington Monument. I slowly made my way to the 1A Media Riser, stopping along the way to take photos of veterans, their families, the landmarks and monuments, etc.

I soon found myself with all the cable news networks and journalists from a bunch of high profile magazines and newspapers. The 1A media platform was the place to be. I had an incredible view of the dedication ceremony, where Tom Brokaw, Tom Hanks, Sen. Bob Dole and President Bush spoke. I also had a great view of the multitude of people attending the event.

The event concluded, and I left.

So, where’s the story behind the photo? Well, this is a story with a moral: don’t delete your digital photos unnecessarily.

It wasn’t until I had returned home to New Mexico in August, and was going through pictures I had taken during the summer, that I discovered this photo. And the remarkable thing is, I didn’t take a picture of this old veteran, who remains unidentified. I was trying to get a shot of the Washington Monument — this guy was in the foreground, unnoticed by me and everybody else.

It was only after the photo appeared on the monitor in front of me that I saw the veteran, sitting alone with a cigarette in his hand, with an expanse of empty chairs behind him. All it took was some simple cropping to achieve the composition, and I had this photo.

I love the picture because it reminds me of that day, which was an incredible experience for me, and because it serves as a reminder that you sometimes never know what you have on your memory card.