pil-gri-mage (noun): any long journey, esp. one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose, as to pay homage
This trip started as, what seemed like at the time, a whim. I saw a poster on the wall of Peck Hall last August and thought the Guam-Iwo Jima-Peleliu MTAbroad trip sounded like an amazing trip. That next afternoon I met Bethany in the VC at the battlefield and found out that not only was she in the same program that I was, but that she was going on the WWII study abroad trip. She said I should, too, so I did. That afternoon I emailed Dr. Frisby, then promptly applied for my subsidized loan. I am not sure what exactly compelled me to say “yes,” but I did.
Initially, this trip was just that- a trip. I understood the magnitude of this trip in that it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity, but at the time it was still just a trip. As a junior in college, I had a military history professor show my naval history class the joys of Google Earth. We “visited” the wreckage of ships along the shores of Cuba, the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor, and the island of Iwo Jima all from our classroom. The island of Iwo Jima struck a chord with me and I am not sure why. I think it was because of what the professor said: Iwo Jima was only open one day a year to the American public and the Japanese government was likely to close the island to civilians in the next few years. I told myself that I would see that island for myself then tucked that thought away.
It is remarkable how much I surround myself with military history, yet I think it is one of my least favorite topics within the overall field of history. I work at a national battlefield and am continually reading something relating to the Civil War. I love World War I and World War II home front history. Band of Brothers still reigns as one of my favorite movies EVER. I paid a chunk of money to go on a trip to the Pacific to see battlefields that initially didn’t have specific or individual meaning to me. Usually the things that interest me are all the other aspects of life during war except for the war itself. Yet, I am still drawn to the stories of the service members at these various places.
One of the first questions people asked me when they found out I was going on this trip was, “why?” It seemed so obvious to me: why not? But that was just the vague answer that does not answer the question accurately. I didn’t know why exactly, I just knew I had to. Even though military history sometimes seems like the most boring type of history to me, I connect to it because of my background. I grew up as an Army Brat, through and through. Except for my dad’s three-year assignment to Camp Zama, Japan, I have never lived in any one spot consecutively for more than two years. Uniforms, government housing, and moving boxes contain levels of comfort to me, as they were major parts of my life. Home is where the Army sends you, right?
A few weeks ago I had a layover in Dallas. Waiting for my plane to arrive, I looked up to see my dad walking in his Army uniform through the airport. The incident was entirely coincidental; we did not know each other’s travel plans, it just happened. But for whatever reason, when I saw my dad walking I could hardly contain myself. I threw everything in my lap and almost started running towards him. The event surprised both of us. While I was talking to him, a twenty-something girl walked up to him, put out her hand, smiled, and said “thanks, sir.” He smiled back, shook her hand, and she walked away. I asked if that happened a lot and he modestly acknowledged that it did. I had to fight back the tears that began to well in my eyes. The American flag badge worn on the shoulder of his uniform seemed exceedingly bright in comparison to the drab of his uniform. The moment was surreal and words don’t capture nor express what I felt.
I believe it is that feeling that struck my chord when I mentally tucked away my plan to one day visit Iwo Jima. It sparked again when I saw the poster on the wall for this trip. And it almost moved me to tears when I realized what my dad does. I never honestly stopped to consider that he is paid to be ready to go to war and put his life on the line if his country tells him to. I was so accustomed to dad-in-uniform and I never contemplated what that actually meant. He is an American soldier and I am very proud of him. My brother also serves in the Air Force, as did my grandfather. I am proud of both of them. Six out of my grandmother’s seven brothers served in WWII; one injured on Peleliu and one on Iwo Jima. I am proud of every single one of them and what they stand for.
I don’t want this to sound cheesy or cliché. Patriotism is an abstract idea that has often been used and abused in order for someone to make a few extra dollars. But I believe it is my patriotism that drives me to this place. This “trip” to the Pacific is more than a trip: it is a pilgrimage. I have trekked thousands of miles in order to trek a few hundred more tomorrow to walk where men fought and died on the beaches of Iwo Jima. In addition to seeing this place for myself, I want to honor the men who fought on the beaches for something they believed in so much that they put their lives on the line. I believe that by honoring the thousands of men who served on Iwo Jima, I will also honor all men and women in uniform who serve (and have served) their country over the course of American history. It is not nearly enough, especially considering all of the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice, but for now it is the least I can do.
I apologize if this seems ramble-y. I have had these thoughts tumbling around in my head for weeks and I don’t know if this makes sense. But it’s from my heart and I guess that is all that matters. We leave for Iwo Jima in four hours. We will arrive in about 6 hours. I’ll write about my experiences there tomorrow evening after we get back.