This past summer, I earned the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. as a delegate for Citizenship Washington Focus. Citizenship Washington Focus (CWF) allows 4-H members from all fifty states to tour famous Washington D.C. sights, meet with state representatives, and participate in workshops which teach delegates about the inner-workings of our nation’s government through hands-on learning.
I made many memories on that trip and experienced things I will not soon forget. I was able to see famous landmarks, such as the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Iowa Jima Memorial, Mt. Vernon, Washington National Cathedral, World War II Memorial, the Capitol building, Library of Congress, among others.
I will never forget the feeling of awe upon seeing Thomas Jefferson’s personal library in the Library of Congress. It was surreal seeing the books of one of the most influential founding fathers. For a history buff like myself, seeing the very books Jefferson held in his hands was a highlight of the trip.
I also met Mississippi state representative, Travis Childers. Mr. Childers led me and my fellow delegates through the underground passageway to the Capitol building. As I walked the underground halls that very few citizens get the opportunity to walk, I imagined the people who have walked those same halls — CIA and FBI agents, Congressmen and Senators, Presidents and Secret Service bodyguards. I imagined myself as an important Senator whose job allows me to walk these halls every day and meet with the leaders of my country. I saw myself as a bodyguard, heading out to investigate a suspicious character. Seeing the “secret” passageways that many citizens do not even know exist was certainly a momentous part of the trip.
However, the sight that impacted me the most was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by Maya Ying Lin, and consists of an expansive wall that lists the names of the more 58,000 men and women who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. A cross next to the name means that the soldier was either MIA or POW. A diamond next to the same name means confirmed dead. If a soldier with a cross beside his name came home alive, the cross would be embossed with a circle. To this day, there are no circles.
I will never forget the feeling I got when I saw the names of more than 58,000 men and women who gave their lives for my country, my family, me. As chill bumps rose on my arms and tears filled my eyes, I was overcome with sorrow for the families of the ones who died, and respect for the heroes themselves.
Those 58,000 names on the wall achieved something that no other memorial in D.C. achieved: It is personal. Unlike the other war memorials which used statues to depict soldiers and war scenes, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial actually names the individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice. These names represent brothers and fathers and uncles, and sisters and mothers and aunts who once had families and friends. These names once lived.
Before the CWF trip, I thought of soldiers as a collective group of brave, nameless people. However, once I viewed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the soldiers became very personal to me. They became a neighbor, a parent, a sibling, a daughter, or a son. I now realize just how much they had to leave behind, and they are no longer nameless.
My time with the CWF program was a wonderful and enlightening experience, and I recommend it to any teenager. For more information about the program, visit: www.citizenshipwashingtonfocus.org.
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