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Sundays in America
by Suzanne Strempek Shea
MAY 25, 2008 TAGS:
An excerpt from “Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith” by Suzanne Strempek Shea
Roll up to Thayer Gate at the far end of Main Street in tiny, tired Highland Falls, N.Y., and take out your driver’s license. Because the man with the holster will want to see that before he lets you through.
You’ll be asked to step from your car. To open the trunk. Then to drive slowly over those sharp forkey tire-eaters. You are now officially on the campus of the United States Military Academy, the oldest such academy in the United States.
Twenty-four hours before my passage through Thayer Gate, George W. Bush spoke to the 861 graduates of the Class of 2006. During the two-hour commencement ceremony in massive Michie Stadium, he lauded the first class to enter the Academy since September 11, 2001, and vowed “Americans will not wait to be attacked again.”
Graduates included 131 women, 47 African-Americans, 65 Asian-Americans, 50 Latinos and two Native Americans who earned bachelor of science degrees and second lieutenant commissions, and who must serve a minimum of five years of active duty, then three in the reserves. Applause was frequent a mile away from Thayer gate, where hundreds assembled around an enormous inflatable rat bearing a sign that read “Impeach G.W. Bush.”
It’s Memorial Day weekend, so I suppose a church at a beach or at a mall might have been fitting for this Sunday. But I wanted to visit one that was sure to regard the fallen soldiers we’re supposed to be honoring. Thus the three-hour drive west to the Hudson River Valley, and the 1910 Cadet Chapel constructed from the granite on which the campus stands.
Built to resemble a 14th-Century English church, with a few military battlements tossed in, the 1,500-seat building is stunning. According to urban legend, it was the inspiration for the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.” But I spot no flying monkeys as we enter for the 10:30 a.m. Protestant service. We join mostly middle-aged nearly-all-Caucasian worshippers in suits and in running togs, plus cadets in their gray trousers, short-sleeved white shirts, nametag over right breast, colored bar over left , moving swiftly in their shiny black shoes, white hats tucked respectfully beneath arms.
The choir moves to seats at the right of the altar at the end of the 210-foot aisle, and two middle-aged men in suits and a young woman in a sundress walk to the front, bow their heads and, like the rest of us, are shaken by the volume of the 23,500 pipes belonging to what is nothing less than the largest organ in the world. “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” is sung by the choir and congregants, all of us using lyrics in the Book of Worship, 611 songs including “Bless Thou the Astronauts.”
“We are once again reminded of the significance of this academy to our nation,” the dark-haired man up front says and asks a special blessing on the firsties, lingo for seniors. “Mold and prepare them spiritually for the next chapter in their lives.”
Then we recognize yesterday’s graduates. Eight stand, all but two in uniform. We join them in The Cadet Prayer pasted inside the hymnal and asking for honest dealing, correct choices and help maintaining the ideals of West Point.
U.S. Army Chaplain Major Darrell Thomsen, former infantry mortar man, current resident of the little granite cottage attached to the back of the chapel, then begins his message, “The Best is Yet to Come.”
“If we walk without God, this life is as good as it gets,” he says, after a pause adding “If we walk with him, the best is yet to come.”
For the remainder of the service, I’ll wait fruitlessly for some mention of Memorial Day. This is the United States Military Academy, statues to deceased war heroes at every turn. The program notes that some of the flowers on the altar have been donated in memory of, 1Lt. Laura Walker, USMA Class of 2003. She’d hardly left this place. Why not mention her?
But why should the subject of death be brought up here when the government forbids publication or broadcast of images of caskets returning home from Iraq, and whose Commander-in-Chief has yet to attend a single funeral for any of the 2,474 soldiers killed there in the 1,170 days the war has been waged as of this writing?
After the service, Tommy and I walk down the hill and stroll the cemetery.
We wander to the back of the grounds. And that’s when I spot the stone. One of those Arlington styles, the third in a row with patches of still-growing-in grass indicating these graves are fresh. Beneath the engraved cross I read:
Laura M. Walker
June 16, 1981
Aug. 18, 2005
Class of 2003
Small stones rest on top of the marker, evidence of a visit, as are the two flags, a drying floral arrangement, and one as new as this day, bold white lilies and blue columbine.
Laura Margaret Walker was 24 when an improvised explosive device detonated beneath her vehicle during operations near Delak.
She was the 26th of the 34 West Point grads killed since Sept. 11.
In her brief life she resided in three countries and 18 cities and studied in ten schools before graduating from high school in Belgium and earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and system engineering from West Point.
Though her career choice is not one that ever would cross my mind, we had interests in common. She photographed and had some images published, in Stars and Stripes. She was dreaming of attending graduate school for journalism. She taught yoga. One website photo shows her astride a horse.
She was buried in the cemetery past which she used to run, and down the hill from the Cadet Chapel at West Point. Where, on this Memorial Day Sunday, at the Cadet Chapel’s Protestant service, not a word about the dead was uttered.
Photos by family and friends of Laura Walker.
Memorial Site for First Leutenant Laura Margaret Walker can be found HERE
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