Reading Time: 4 minutes
One of the luxuries of being on sabbatical I’ve experienced since landing at home in Northern Virginia in early April is the opportunity to reconnect with friends. On several occasions, I’ve hung out with my girls from the lululemon alumni group.
Here we are at Mara’s Cinco de Derby party in early May.
Claudia Cavazza is one of those girls, second row, far right. Catching up at this party, we made it a point to schedule a lunch date so that we could spend some quality time together one-on-one. She also recently left her corporate job to pursue her love of fitness full time. She owns a corporate wellness business, WRKwell and is a yoga teacher. Finding ourselves at the same life cross-roads at the same time, we have a lot to catch up on.
At lunch, a few weeks later, we gather around healthy and delicious foods to encourage each other, share corporate stories, explore topics of curiosity and creativity and talk about the challenges and benefits of entrepreneurship.
It becomes evident to me really quick that Claudia is clear about her passion and is on a mission: making yoga available to military members, veterans and first respondents. She speaks with conviction about the value of the practice for this niche audience. She is dedicated to helping these remarkable citizens build an alternative and complementary toolkit to the traditional programs offered by organizations like the Veterans’ Administration so they can cope with stress and other trauma-related issues differently and more effectively. She has anchored WRKwell’s purpose in a commitment to creating a triple bottom line business model: creating financial, environmental and social value simultaneously, specifically for the veteran and first responders community. In partnership with Vetoga, she is also developing a program to provide veterans with the skills they need and access to opportunities to successfully pursue a career in the corporate wellness space.
Noble and inspiring AF.
It’s only natural that I ask her: “So what are you doing for Memorial Day?”
She shares that she is planning to participate in an event put on by an organization affiliated with her yoga teacher program called “Mindful Memorial Day” at Arlington National Cemetery.
In the moment, I kind of lose track of the details as I listen to my thoughts:
What a quintessential DC thing to do, Memorial Day at the Cemetery. I’ve been all over Europe this year, discovering some of the world’s most beautiful cities, yet there is a wonderful ever-evolving city right in my backyard. I’m itching to travel, I should start here at home.
“Can I join you?”
It’s a drizzly cool morning. “Hey mama, are you still in?” Claudia texts me.
“Absolutely. See you soooooon!” I respond.
We meet at the Iwo Jima Memorial…
…and walk to the Cemetery together. It’s not my first time here. I’ve taken many tourist visitors here to see the Eternal Flame at President Kennedy’s resting place and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before. But on Memorial Day, it feels different.
We head to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial to meet with the event’s organizers and team of volunteers. Armor Down is an organization that helps veterans reintegrate back into society upon completion of their respective tours of duty. On Memorial Day, their foundation, Mindful Memorial Day puts on an observance event at the Cemetery with the objective to honor fallen warriors through mindfulness. “Only by devoting our fullest attention to the sacrifices of this generation of warriors can we begin to appreciate their importance to the citizens and institutions they died to protect.”
The Foundation prepares everything ahead of time: each soldier that has perished in-theater fighting the Global War on Terror since September 11, 2001 gets a yellow ribbon attached to a card that includes their name and grave location. The process is pretty simple: anyone visiting that day can pick up a ribbon, place it on a warrior’s grave and have a moment of mindfulness as part of the process. There are thousands of ribbons.
For background, the Cemetery’s 624 acres are divided in 70 neatly groomed and organized sections. We pick up a couple dozen ribbons each and head to section 60 to find and honor our soldiers.
On the walk there, to keep myself busy, I organize tombstone numbers in ascending order – that can’t be a bad idea right?! I can feel emotions start to build up and I mentally prepare by rehearsing my moment of mindfulness and gratitude for each soldier’s ribbon I have in my hand:
I’m gonna say the soldier’s first name, the state they are from, what they fought, and then thank them for their sacrifice before I put the ribbon on the stone. That’s nice.
As soon as we step in Section 60, we start looking for numbers. Claudia declares: “We should be all the way over there, where the people are.” Yes, I like people. Good.
More background: Section 60 is special. It’s the place where most of the fallen from recent wars are buried. As Robert M Poole, author of Section 60: Where War Comes Home puts it: “If you walk around Section 60, you soon learn that the rules of engagement are quite different from what you see everywhere else in the world. There’s the community of the dead under the ground, and the community of the living aboveground.”
As we get closer to our first number, I am already overwhelmed with emotions. All these people are here because they lost someone they love, fighting, during my lifetime. I can’t keep the tears from rolling down face. Claudia comforts me: “Take your time.”
Everybody handles grief differently. There is no prescription to deal with the recent and tragic loss of a loved one. On Memorial Day, families and friends often take the pilgrimage to these sacred grounds from all over the country to come spend time with their lost guy or gal.
I see parents, sitting quietly by their son’s gravesite. I see families and friends gathered as if around a campfire, their loved one’s grave stone in the center. I see children running free between tombstones. I see people picnicking, others drinking beer. I see people laughing. I see people crying. I see objects and memories scattered on and around tombstones.
And emotions are palpable and raw.
For the next several hours, like a treasure hunt, I walk up and down the neatly organized rows of standard issue tombstones looking for my soldiers.
James, from Kentucky, Operation Iraqi Freedom, thank you for your service and sacrifice. Holy shit, he is from Lexington. That’s where Jules and Mal live. He was 22 years old.
Carlos, from Arizona, Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan, thank you for your service and sacrifice. I went to school in Tempe. He was 24 years old.
Marcus from Texas, Operation Enduring Freedom, thank you for your service and sacrifice. Wow, he got a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
The most significant moments comes when I find a family gathered around my next number. “Excuse me, are you with Chris today? May I please have the honor to place this ribbon on his tombstone to demonstrate my gratitude for his and your sacrifice?” I mindfully look in the eyes of each of these individuals as I explain why I was here. “This is Chris’ wife Eva, and there is his son CJ. You mean you are doing this today instead of drinking beer on a boat?” Chris’ mom asks. Yes, I am.
Pete, from Tennessee, Operation Iraqi Freedom, thank you for your service and sacrifice.
It is his dad Jim that impacts me the most. As soon as our eyes lock as I ask him for permission to adorn his son’s gravestone with the ribbon, we both start to cry. He shakes my hand and pull me in for a hug. We cry on each other’s shoulder for what would have normally been an inappropriate amount of time. “Thank you Caroline, the honor is mine.” We spend time together looking at pictures of Pete throughout the years as I listen to Jim recounting stories of his departed son’s dream to be in the Army.
I will never forget Memorial Day 2018. Thank you Claudia – keep on your mission.