When I took I-24 east out of Nashville on Friday, I had no idea why traffic was crawling along so slowly and tightly packed. Trying to make good time as I headed southeast for the weekend, I sat defeated and resigned behind my steering wheel.
As the huddle of vehicles moved slowly along, though, I caught sight of an overpass lined with fire trucks. Lights flashed, an American flag flowed from where it was hung on an extended ladder. The trucks were flanked by pedestrians, some waving flags, others wearing crisply-pressed uniforms.
There was a solemn air surrounding their display. This was no parade, no celebration. I’d witnessed similar scenes from time to time in the small towns where I’ve spent my life. They were the gut-wrenching farewells to local heroes – a firefighter who’d spent his life in service to the community; a rescuer who gave so much and died so young that you couldn’t say her life was ‘spent’ at all.
I knew, as I drove on, that these people were grieving the loss of their own hero, young or old, who had served and protected them. They were drawing together in a community of gratitude to show their respect for someone who fully deserved it.
I flicked on my headlights though the sun still shone brightly – it was the only show of solidarity I could offer from my driver’s seat. A woman waved when my lights blinked on, and the man beside her almost imperceptibly nodded, and in that moment I felt somehow united. I knew that I had been privileged with becoming a tiny, but real part of their salute, and it both broke and soothed my heart.
I drove on, and soon found that each new overpass brought more of the same: fire trucks, police cruisers with lights blazing, crowds of people, American flags. Vehicles began peppering the outskirts of the interstate, their occupants waiting patiently with headlights aglow or standing roadside, scanning for something in the stretching sea of traffic.
One pick-up held a row of little boys corralled into its truck bed, each holding a miniature flag. A grandfatherly man stood at the side with his arm draped around one boy’s shoulders.
My throat clenched and I fought away tears as I witnessed these thousands of mourners descending upon the route. The overwhelming grief and respect, the loss and the gratitude etched on each face and displayed in each wave of a flag felt palpable.
I was witnessing a shared sentiment that has become nearly extinct in a generation where people have been given so much, so freely, that they no longer know what it is to be grateful. I was witnessing a disjointed people coming together, town after town, and becoming one. I was witnessing the knitting together of a nation in a way that comes only at the rallying call of courageous men and women who inspire us by being an example of exactly what we are capable of.
When I took I-24 east out of Nashville on Friday, headed toward Chattanooga, I had no idea that I was tracing the funeral route of one of five American heroes who were killed simply for their pledge to serve and protect our country.
Petty Officer Randall Smith, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Lance Cpl. Squire Wells, and Sgt. Carson Holmquist, though their lives were cut needlessly short, have lived up to those pledges in death, and have drawn together a people who are stronger, more united than before.
As we move forward and this great loss begins to fade in our rear-view mirrors, I hope we will not forget that strength and unity that they gave us, even when it cost their lives. My hope is that, instead, we let their memories burn on as a fire in each of us that drives us to fight together for a better, safer nation.
Reach Brittany Wise at 270-259-9622 ext. 2014.