The grounds of the National Fire Academy were peaceful and near-silent when we arrived. Except for the occasional bird chirp, or the curt greetings of those passing us, the four of us wandered the memorial in reverent silence.
It's hard not to be struck into speechlessness when you first step onto the Walk of Honor in Emmitsburg, MD. Names are carved into the bricks with a rich, obsidian blackness; the sheer volume of names and sentiments is overwhelming.
The listings range from friends and family to companies and recruit classes, all honoring those who have fallen in the line of duty. As we walked down the pathway, we approached a large, circular memorial space with a dedication obelisk surrounded by bronze plaques with the names of those lost from every year since 1981. An eternal flame burned just in front of the obelisk, and a series of flags (forever kept at half mast) framed it from behind.
Just to walk around and look at the plaques from different years was sobering; tokens and trinkets (mostly coins) were placed on top of the knee-high structures by those who had come before us to pay their respects.
Particularly moving was a sculpture just across the lawn from the Walk of Honor. A massive bronze statue depicting Raising the Flag at Ground Zero (Thomas E. Franklin's instantly recognizable photograph from the afternoon of September 11th), it had a flag flying proudly from the flagpole amidst the debris.
As the four of us began to leave, we noticed a small bronze eagle placed in another memorial area. I'm not sure if it's a recreation or an actual second work by the same artist, but the eagle we saw was identical in appearance and title to the "Bex Eagle" located at the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and 15th St, NW (the plaques are even the same). The inscription intrigued me, and I snapped a quick photo so I could remember the text:
Freedom is the right to one's soul; the right of each person to approach God in his own way and by his own means. It is a man's right to possess his mind and conscience for himself. To those who put their trust in freedom, the state can have no sovereignty over the mind or soul — must be the servant of man's reason, not the master.
Free men must re-dedicate themselves to the cause of freedom. They must understand with a new certainty of conviction that the cause of freedom is the cause of the human individual. Human individuality is the basis of every value — spiritual, moral, intellectual, creative — in human life.
There was no author attributed, nor can I find one at this time.
We exited the gate of the National Fire Academy that day with a sense of pride. Pride in those who have come before us, as well as those who are to come after us; however, the level of camaraderie we felt that day belied the fact that we were most proud of each other.
Here we were: four complete strangers to each other only months before. Now, they're men that I can call brothers. If I took anything from the memorial, it was the feeling that that we'll do everything in our power to get each other home safely—but the one thing we'll never do is allow them to be forgotten.
With a proud and dedicated heart,