Little Red Flowers and Remembering Veterans

By Army Capt. Dayna Rowden, Multinational Division South, Iraq

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE BASRA, Iraq – Ever wonder what the significance is of the little red flowers that the Veterans of Foreign Wars hand out? What are they and what do they mean? The answer to the first question is simple. They are poppies. Red-flowered corn poppies.

Poppies have long been used as a symbol of both sleep and death: sleep because of the opium extracted from them, and death because of their blood-red color. In Greco-Roman myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead. The bright scarlet color symbolized the promise of resurrection after death.

One of the most poignant symbols of the cost of World War I is the cemetery at Flanders Field in Ypres, Belgium. In the nearly 150 cemeteries in this area, row upon row of crosses and headstones mark the graves of the some of the one million U.S., European and Australian soldiers and civilians who gave their lives in almost four years of combat on the salient near Ypres. More than 54,000 crosses mark the graves of unknown dead.

Among the rows in the gardens of stone, life and resurrection spring forth in the form of the red-flowered corn poppy, a common plant in Europe. Canadian surgeon and soldier, Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” May 3, 1915, after witnessing the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer.

In tribute to the opening lines of McCrae’s poem, Moina Michael vowed in her 1915 poem “We Shall Keep the Faith” to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. Thus the plant became a symbol for the dead World War I soldiers.

Veterans groups in England, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States have adopted the red poppy as not only a symbol of remembrance of the sacrifice of veterans who have died but of the continued sacrifice that veterans make in service to their countries.

While serving a year in Iraq, days may seem to pass with little difference from one to the next. We try to mark important holidays through decorations, barbeques, picnics and concerts. These celebrations help to remind us of our loved ones and of our rituals and normalcy back at home. Still, the significance of holidays and celebrations may be lost in our separation from what makes them so dear.

Veterans Day is not one of those holidays. In fact, being in a combat zone reminds us of the sacrifice and service that make this holiday so significant. Strip away the barbeques. Get rid of the days off. Take down the red, white and blue bunting and the patriotic parades. What do you have left? You have the essence of this somber day. Remembrance.

What are we remembering? We remember that by the signing of the Armistice at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 marking the end of World War I, more than 20 million from over 26 countries were dead.

We are not alone in this remembrance. In many parts of the world people take a two-minute moment of silence at 11 a.m. as a sign of respect for people who died in the war.

When you see the simple and humble poppy, think about the sacrifice of the veterans who have come before you and the ones that will follow. Though poppies grow, we should not sleep. We should remain vigilant and remember.

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