It has taken me some time to write this. This man is named Leroy. He is from the Dominican Republic and works at Arlington National Cemetery. We visited on 9/11 and as we were waiting on the tram that runs through the cemetery near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he said something I will never forget.
As we stood there, lined up, Leroy asked our group, “Who here is a veteran? If you could, please step forward.”
My grandfather, Poppy, was a Marine, and though he did not see battle, he was stationed many places all over the world in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was tentative about stepping forward. I kept trying to get him to go forward, but he shook his head.
“I didn’t fight,” he whispered to me.
I think he was showing respect for those who had, but it made me sad. Poppy served his country too…but I also understood his feelings.
Leroy stood in front of those veterans who had come forward and he asked them what wars they had fought in. Some said World War II. The Korean War. The Vietnam War. Desert Storm. So many different answers from so many different women and men.
“Can the families of these brave soldiers step forward?”
It was at this point, that Leroy asked my grandfather, “You were a Marine?”
He must have overheard our exchange in the quiet atmosphere of the somber cemetery.
My grandfather nodded, and Leroy said, “You served your country. You and your family come up here. You belong here.”
And then Leroy walked in front of us all and gave the most incredible speech to us, one I will never forget. One that made us all cry.
I will try to do it justice and write it here as best I can.
“My name is Leroy. I am from the Dominican Republic. Over 30 years ago, I came here to your wonderful country of America. I came here for opportunities. I came here to better myself, to make something of myself.
When I came to America, I got a college education. I came here the right way and it took a very long time. I got my education because of all of you. Had it not been for your sacrifices and your good deeds, I could not have done this. Because you all fought in wars, because you stepped forward, not just today, but all those years ago, you made a path for me. Some of your friends may have perished in the same wars you fought; they might not have been afforded the same opportunities as me, but because of them, I was able to get a college education. To live here, a free man, in a country that values freedom.
I came here all those years ago and fell in love with your country. It is why I became a citizen.
Now, I get to come here every day and work in this national cemetery. I retired several years ago. I do not need the money. The job does not pay me very well, but still, I come here, so I can look as many veterans in the eyes and tell you all…thank you. For your service. For your sacrifices.
I am older now and will eventually go back to my home country, but I will never forget Americans and what you all have done for me and my life. Thank you for what you fought for, all those years ago.”
While Leroy had given his speech, we had all been earth shatteringly silent.
Here was a man from another country, an immigrant who came to America all those years ago, who did not even need this job in Arlington National Cemetery, yet he came and lovingly worked hours in the hot sun and elements…to be able to say thank you to the soldiers who fought for his freedom.
Tears were rolling down all of our cheeks. We were speechless.
This man could not have known that we would be there that day, that we would be in that group.
Leroy came to America and gained his citizenship. Even though he did not fight in any of our wars, he understood the sacrifices that came along with them. He understood our laws and what makes America great.
Listening to this man from a sea away, the Dominican Republic, was humbling. It made us feel a love and understanding for him that was indescribable. Leroy understood what America is about.
America is a country of immigrants, it is true. At our core, we have all come from different places, far flung on the map, to end up here and contribute to our country with values, hard work and perseverance.
Leroy exemplified everything that an immigrant is, but more importantly, a good man is and an American is.
He came here to learn and receive an education, and valued our country so much, that he obtained his citizenship.
Though my brother was killed by an illegal alien, I do not hate Fransisco Eduardo. I forgive him. I only wish he had valued our country the same way Leroy does. I only wish he could have come here and joined us, not hidden in the shadows. I only wish he had taken personal responsibility for his actions.
Illegal immigration is a problem our country has faced for many years.
Our system is broken and it is an issue that will not be solved overnight.
But I can tell you one thing—
As I stood in the middle of Arlington National Cemetery on 9/11, a day full of sadness and remembrance, surrounded by stark, white tombstones, crying over the words of someone who had been a stranger only 5 minutes before, it made me realize…I want to be a Leroy.