An Emotional Visit To ‘Ground Zero’

Rick Hamada
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Wednesday - October 27, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. - As of this writing, a group of listeners to my radio program, my family and I are touring New England and Canada via land and sea. Our travels include stops in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Niagara Falls and Montreal. We board our cruise ship in Quebec City, which takes us to Sydney, Nova Scotia, Bar Harbor, Maine, Boston, Newport, R.I., and back to NYC. It’s called the “Patriot Tour,” and the itinerary lives up to its name.

Although we are but a few days into our excursion, a few indelible impressions have already been made.

Standing in front of Ground Zero in NYC is one of the most moving experiences any American will encounter. This is not my first visit to NYC, but it’s my first since 9/11. My initial reaction was just how much smaller the area is compared to media images. The site is about 16 acres in size, yet when you view Ground Zero, it seems inconceivable that the two towers and other buildings occupied this space. But the sense of outrage tempered by sadness is palpable. On the street fronting Ground Zero is a makeshift memorial. I am certain there are others, but even nine years later, the spontaneity of its display resonates. Recovery workers salvaged a section of I-beam from the rubble in the shape of a cross. It stands just steps away from Ground Zero and is inscribed with names of some first responders who lost their lives. The oxidation of the metal, giving it a coppery discoloration, coupled with the fading messages of prayer and heartfelt condolences is a poignant reminder of how personal and visceral the loss of life was for so many.

A sidebar observation: I know folks need to make a living. I don’t begrudge that. But as we are contemplating the tragedy of 9/11 right in the place it occurred, it struck me as being not only tacky, but sacrilegious that hawkers of 9/11 memorabilia would traffic picture books and other trinkets right there at the site of Ground Zero. It’s not dissimilar to having a vendor sell you a crucifix while you are receiving communion.

The controversy over the construction of the Islamic mosque has captured headlines around the world. Given the facts of those who were involved in the 9/11 murderous assault, and it was nothing less than that, it’s understandable that emotions would run so deep in its opposition. I spoke with several locals, who seemed to be split on the issue reflecting the dilemma. New Yorkers pride themselves on their diversity and acceptance of all, regardless of race and religion. It’s their calling card. Yet people have their limits, and the obstinate and arrogant position by supporters of the mosque’s construction defiles the memory of innocents who died. If you are a supporter of the mosque being built in such close proximity to Ground Zero, I would hope you would have the opportunity to share your justifications with the friend or family member of a felled first responder or victim of the attack.

Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is another place of sacred ground in our nation. The quiet solemnity belies the stories behind each headstone. There are more than 300,000 interred, with the vast majority losing their lives either in battle or in service to our country. It is also the renowned resting place of President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and other family members. Yes, Kennedy was a popular president, and his demise at the hands of an assassin’s bullet truly is one of the darkest chapters in American history. But Arlington is so much more than a single man.

Consider the story of Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., United States Air Force, who was the first African-American to rise to the rank of a four-star general. There’s Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II who was immortalized in film. Nathan Bedford Forrest III, brigadier general of U.S. Army Air Force and the great-grandson of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (also one of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan), is buried there. He also was the first general to be killed in action in Europe in World War II. These, of course, are but a few of the many legacies enshrined in America’s resting place.

For sheer drama and an unmistakable display of honor, it is difficult to rival Arlington’s changing of the guard ceremony. “The Tomb of the Unknowns” or “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” is a memorial to all unidentified soldiers who died in battle. Its roots are found in a similar British memorial instituted years before America did in 1921 with the interment of a World War I unknown. The tomb, as we know it today, was erected in 1932. The guard is staffed with members of the vaunted 3rd U.S. Infantry. A sentry is posted 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The rigorous requirements of physical condition, precise execution and unquestionable character is evident. I would encourage you to view the ceremony online.

“It’s something every American must experience. It made me proud to be an American,” says Randy Bisho of Honolulu, a member of our travel group. It has inspired Bisho “to thank every service person that I see and thank them for what they have done for us.”

Our visit to Arlington was highlighted by a wonderful coincidence. While attending the changing of the guard ceremony, it was announced that the wreath-laying portion was dedicated to Mililani Middle School. Mililani Middle School? Sure enough, a contingent of students and faculty from Mililani Middle School was there to participate in this most moving and honorable of ceremonies. Our experience was richly enhanced with the participation of such an engaged group of Hawaii students, not only learning from this once-in-a-lifetime event, but also representing all of Hawaii with their stellar conduct and respectful patriotism.

Perhaps, when planning your next vacation, you will consider a tour of the remarkable destination of the United States of America.

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