ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker

KNOWN BUT TO GOD

Nestled in northeast France, Chalons-sur-Marne is a picture postcard waiting to be stamped and mailed.

At least, it is today.

But it hasn’t always been.  Situated near the French-German border, the picturesque hamlet has often been under siege.  In A.D. 451, for example, it was the place where Attila and his Huns suffered ignominious defeat at the hands of the Romans and Visigoths.  During World War II the Germans used the Chalons-sur-Marne prison as an assembly station for deportations.

This is a town that knows all about paying tribute to those who have fallen in combat.  After all, it has been doing so for millennia.  So it seems somehow appropriate that one of America’s most enduring military memorials began 83 years ago in Chalons-sur-Marne.

On an autumn day in 1921, four caskets lay in state in the Hotel de Ville, which also served as the Chalons-sur-Marne City Hall.  Within these caskets were the mortal remains of four unidentified American soldiers who had lost their lives – and, somehow, their respective identities – on French battlefields during World War I.  Because of his outstanding service record, Sergeant Edward F. Younger of the 59th Infantry was given the task of choosing one of these four caskets to be transported to Washington, D.C., to be interred with honor in Arlington National Cemetery as America’s Unknown Soldier.

Sgt. Younger was well aware of the significance of his duty.  He had served valiantly during World War I, which had ended with the signing of the Armistice ending hostilities on Nov. 11, 1918.  He had seen scores of his comrades-in-arms fall during battle.  At night, when he tried to sleep, he could still see their anguished, contorted faces, and he could still hear their agonizing cries and screams.  There were many of that number whose bodies had never been recovered, or couldn’t be identified.

“Were any of them here?” he wondered as he walked around the caskets three times.  As he started around for the fourth time, he said he felt “involuntarily drawn” to the second one.  So he solemnly marched toward it, gently laid a bouquet of white roses upon it, saluted and then turned to report to his commanding officer that his mission had been accomplished.

On Nov. 11, 1921, America’s Unknown Soldier was laid to rest with all the pomp and circumstance a grateful nation could muster.  In those days before DNA testing and other modern developments, it was unfortunately not usual to be unable to provide absolute identification of fallen soldiers.  So this soldier, whoever he was, represented not just the four whose caskets lay in state in Chalons-sur-Marne, but also thousands of other soldiers from other wars who gave everything – even their very identities – so that friends, family members and countless unknown others could enjoy the safety and security of the freedoms we now enjoy.

 Do you see the irony of that?  We refer to these soldiers as “unknown,” but in fact they WERE known – deeply and intimately – by loved ones who missed them desperately when they failed to return from war.  The real “unknowns” in this equation is us – “we, the people” for whom they died.  They didn’t know us.  Most had no connection to us whatsoever.  And yet they fought and died for us – known or unknown – and for something they believed in.  Something greater than self.  Something more precious, even, than a man’s own good name: freedom

Which is why I appreciate the sentiment of the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – “Here rests in honored glory an American Soldier Known but to God” – but I don’t buy it.  I feel like I know this guy, and other “unknowns” of his generation and others.  I know what they stood for.  I know what they fought for.  I know what they died for.

Even if I don’t know their names.

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— © Joseph Walker

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"How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com.