PFC Andrew Meari Memorial Park has been officially dedicated. The sign is not yet permanently installed because the sign manufacturer made a small error and are working on a fix. It’s not yet searchable on Google Maps or Mapquest either, but it is a reality, a real place with real meaning.
Regular readers will recognize the name. PFC Andrew Meari is my son. He was killed in action on November 1st, 2010 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Naming a park for him sounds like a nice thing to do, a way to recognize the service and sacrifice he made in the uniform of the United States Army. The appropriateness of naming a park, any park, for one of the Fallen goes way beyond the simple yet significant act of remembrance. In this particular case, it is particularly poignant as Andrew grew up playing in this very park.
Every community that is the hometown of one of our Fallen should name a place where children play, free and carefree, for their local hero. We all know children learn best when the lesson comes while at play. There are many lessons for children, and all of us, in the dedication of a park to a Fallen Soldier.
Some have said, wrongly, that naming a children’s park for a Fallen Soldier glorifies war. Rather than glorify war, it reminds us and future generations of the price of war, of the pain, suffering and loss that war brings; in short, it is a testament to peace. It is said no one prays harder for peace than a soldier. The caveat there is, except for the mother of a soldier.
Beyond statements about war and peace, naming a park for someone who went to war, was willing to sacrifice his very life and then did make that supreme sacrifice teaches children that what they have, including the freedom to play as all children should, is not free. Someone bought that right for them, and gave their life to ensure they and future generations will continue to have that right.
Someday, a little boy may ride his bicycle to that park as Andrew once did. Maybe that little boy will see the sign and begin to understand as he reads the words,
Maybe that little boy will be inspired to grow up and be a soldier who defends the right of other little kids to play free and carefree. Maybe he’ll be a firefighter, or a policeman, or a doctor, or just an average, ordinary American who understands and appreciates what we have here in this country and believes our ideals are worthy of the sacrifice. Maybe that little boy will learn that appreciating and respecting what we have, what our heroes fight and sacrifice and die for, is the point of naming a park for a Fallen Soldier.
Above and beyond all else, there is a very personal meaning to renaming his childhood park for my son.
I had two goals for the day. I arrived early for the dedication and did my best to greet and thank each and every person. From those who came out to hold a flag, show their support, express their gratitude for his service and sacrifice to those who rode in the procession of motorcycles and trucks adorned with American flags and though I did try, I know I missed many. Thanking all of the friends, neighbors, Patriot Guard Riders, Warrior Watch Riders, Project Patriotism people, the VFW and Ladies Auxiliaries, the American Legion, the Joliet Police Pipes and Drums and everyone else who came was my first goal.
News reports said there were 200 people, but the PGR and Project Patriotism reported they had brought more than 350 flags. And they ran out. Someone counted another seventy-three flags people brought on their own and there were as many people without flags as there were holding the Stars and Stripes. It was simply overwhelming to see and I beg the forgiveness of anyone I did not get to personally thank. Because thanking each and every person was my goal, I’m so very sorry I fell short.
Nearly five years ago, the Patriot Guard Riders escorted my son’s procession home from Midway airport. The route took us down the I-55, through town, circled the high school and then on to the funeral home. The PGR and thousands lined the streets, came to the wake and led the escort on Veteran’s Day, November 11th, 2010 to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery where my only child was laid to rest. Most of the memories I have of those days would be lost if not for this video made by Heidi Kelly of Plainfield Emergency Management of pictures she and her partner, Nick Vandenbrouke snapped.
Each time I watch the video, I am overwhelmed again by the support and respect of so many who never met my son. All they knew was he was ‘one of ours’, a soldier, who died because he swore an oath to protect and defend us and our ideals. And I think, how could I ever thank all of those people, how could I ever show them how grateful I am? So, when I was told the park where my son played as a child would be renamed for him, in addition to being overwhelmed at the symbolism, it felt I finally may have my chance.
I did speak at the dedication ceremony, and I did express my thankfulness and my gratefulness, but it was in the individual moments, saying thank you, shaking hands and getting and giving more hugs than I ever have that the full purpose of the day was realized for me.
Several people came up to me throughout the day, one which I repeatedly declared was a celebration, a time for joyful remembrance, and quoted one version or another of one of the most poignant statements ever uttered, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived”. Most days I am thankful for having been given the gift of being Mom to that little boy, and the man he became.
Swinging on a swing at my son’s park was the second goal of the day. The swings were my son’s favorite thing. It made him feel butter-tummy-flies which he would declare the best thing ever, an opinion I fully shared. After the crowds were gone, in the quiet rush of air as I flew I could hear his voice joyfully calling to me, “Mommy, I’m flying! Come swing with me!”
A special thank you to Mark Benuska of Mark Andrew Photography for the hundreds of memories. Because of your eye, I have a photo of the joy I felt at that moment, a happiness more pure than any I’d ever thought I’d feel again. I can never thank you enough for that.
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