I’ve been a military spouse for what my husband commonly refers to as “a hot minute.” You would think that after all this time, I would stop being surprised at all the things that come with military life.
But nope. Experiences like random TDYs, changes to our no-plan plan, promotions, future duty stations… it almost always catches me a little bit off guard; I’ve grown significantly in my ability to be flexible.
There is one aspect of the military life that I’ve experienced over and over again, but yet it still surprises me every single time.
It typically occurs at the military ball.
Most formal military ball events are relatively predictable: The ladies are groomed and spiffed up, sporting new dresses, high-heeled shoes that if I wore them would likely result in a broken ankle, and enough hairspray to need a “no open flame” sign.
The service members are in their dress uniforms, immaculately assembled after hours of making sure their awards and insignia are accurately updated and adhered in the correct location.
There’s the cocktail hour, followed by the receiving line, then usually the “grog” ceremony (which usually does involve some humorous surprises). After that come the toasts.
The atmosphere is upbeat and jovial as designated individuals lead the toasts:
“I propose a toast to our Commander in Chief, the President of the United States!”
“To the president!”
“I propose a toast to the United States Army!”
“To the Army!”
Thus proceeds the enthusiastic cheers throughout the remaining toasts.
Until the emcee gets to the final toast. The one that always surprises me. The one that still rattles me to the core.
The toast to our fallen comrades.
The exact wording varies from unit to unit, but in the half dozen (or more) military balls I’ve attended, the following words, coupled with the visual, never fail to deeply touch my heart.
It goes like this:
“You may have noticed the small table set for one that is off on its own—it is reserved to honor our fallen comrades in arms. We should never forget the brave men and women who answered our nation’s call and served the cause of freedom in a special way. We are ever mindful that the sweetness of enduring peace has always been tainted by the bitterness of personal sacrifice. We are compelled to never forget that while we enjoy our daily pleasures, there are others who have endured the agonies of pain, deprivation, and death.
I would like to explain the meaning of the items on this special table.
The table is round to show our everlasting concern for our fallen comrades.
The tablecloth is white representing the purity of their motives when answering the call to duty.
The single red rose in the vase signifies the blood that many have shed in sacrifice to ensure the freedom of our beloved United States of America. This rose also reminds us of the family and friends of our fallen comrades who keep the faith while awaiting their return.
The vase is tied with a red ribbon, representing the love of our country, which inspired them to answer the nation’s call.
A slice of lemon on the bread plate is to remind us of the bitter fate of those who will never return.
A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears endured by the families of those who have sacrificed all.
The lit candle is reminiscent of the light of hope which lives on in our hearts, even in the absence of our fallen comrades.
The glass is inverted, they cannot toast with us at this time.
The chair is empty because they are no longer with us.
Let us remember and never forget their sacrifice.”
Then, my friends, comes the “loudest” moment of the entire event—that deafening silence that follows the Fallen Comrades’ Toast.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, I propose a toast to our fallen comrades.”
It’s met with silence.
Dear, readers… May our hearts never become “accustomed” to the sacrifice of our service members. Let our very souls be touched as we reflect on the family members who have to face “that empty chair” every single day.
As we look toward Memorial Day this year, let us remember with reverence that empty chair at the table. Every person who has given their all for our country is someone’s father, mother, sister, brother, daughter, son, friend, or comrade in arms.
May the silence speak volumes as we toast that empty chair at the table.
Featured image photo by Sgt. 1st Class Teddy Wade, U.S. Army Materiel Command