BY JODY BENSON
This frigid Saturday morning at Guaje Pines Cemetery, members of the community put evergreen wreaths on the graves of veterans. Each veteran was marked with a little orange survey flag that some organization had taken hours to locate and place. The slope of our beautiful cemetery was blooming with flags erect in the frozen ground. Somehow, 65 of the 300 wreaths hadn’t gotten here, so instead of laying a wreath, we stood at the grave to say the veteran’s name out loud and thank each for their service and sacrifice.
Here in Los Alamos, so many of these veterans are the parents who boomed the babies who were my classmates, as well as the teachers who taught us. I know these men and the wives buried beside them with an interlocked ring declaring their decades of marriage—38, 55, and my parents, 62. These people served here with the project or came home from war in Europe, the Pacific, Korea…. I remember in that era how many of our parents were grateful to the bomb. I grew up grateful, too. I even remember one of my teachers, a Korean War Vet, who told us stories about his “adventures” fighting while freezing off body parts as he wished we’d dropped the bomb on those commies. But that was a different era when America sill held supremacy in the world. There’s no army we’d use a nuke on now because all those nations can fire back at us. Maybe Mutually Assured Destruction actually worked. Now the only thing our enemies need for destroying democracy is a troll farm in Ukraine.
Flags also showed me a few from my own generation. Not many from my class served in Vietnam. We mostly went to college and were exempt. Some did. Thank you. And for those of you who are, I’m glad you’re still with us. By the way, I was a Donut Dollie with the Red Cross attached to the US Army in Korea in ’71 and ’72.
My dad is buried in Guaje Pines, too. John S. Benson brought us, his family, to Los Alamos in 1958 when he was recruited to be one of the first physicians in private practice just after the gates opened. He and Helen were married in 1943, just before he was sent to basic training where, as he tells it, they trained with wooden guns and brooms because by then there were no weapons to waste stateside. He volunteered as a medic because ever since he was a little boy and his father died of renal failure due to strep throat, John had wanted to be a doctor and save people so they’d never die and leave a little boy bereft.
John trained running with stretchers and learning field first aid in order to save people at the front, until one day his sergeant yelled out over the field, “Private Benson! Report to HQ. Now!” That was when, because of his test scores and performance, the army pulled Private Benson out of basic to send him to medical school. He graduated a year after VE Day, served in the Coast Guard, and then in the Public Health Service. For forty years more, he served his patients into the night while Helen kept the home together, fed whatever neighbor kid dropped in at mealtime, chauffeured kids on the days when John didn’t drive the car to work, and taught kids basic survival skills like cooking, cleaning, and pulling weeds. My father, as were so many of the men and women who were the boring old parents we rebelled against, was a true servant, and sacrificed his life, not to die for the nation in war, but to live for his people during peace.
Each grave holds a body of knowledge, a life full of stories, memories now dust and ashes. I think of them, the parents, the friends, (inevitably me), and how each of them created my community and expanded that community one by ten by the thousands each meets in our decades of daily encounters. Yes, those we honored today are veterans. With gratitude to God, the lives of most here in Guaje Pines didn’t end on the battlefield. Thank you for your service in uniform, and I am also even more thankful for your service to your families, the community, the world, and me during the lives you each spent creating peace.
To all you veterans—and to all you community builders—thank you. May you—we all—be blessed with grace and peace.