It happened a couple of years ago, at a place where you might not imagine things getting stolen: The Fort Sam Houston Cemetery in San Antonio.
Although open to the public, the cemetery is located on the Fort, which of course is guarded at every entrance. You even need a pass to visit a patient at the hospital there.
Virginia’s late husband, Santiago Bueno, Jr., is buried there. She had lost her high school sweetheart to heart attack in 2011. Both were from military families and she always supported him, even at age 42 when he participated in Operation Desert storm.
Santiago’s nickname was Jim. He loved the Spurs, as most in San Antonio do. He also somehow, despite his lifetime association with Texas, developed a love for the Green Bay Packers.
A couple of years after his death, Virginia placed at Jim’s grave a couple of memorial flower containers. One was decorated with the familiar black and white Spurs logo; the other was in the familiar green of the Packers.
But when she returned to Jim’s grave to remove the flowers, she discovered that the Spurs monument had been stolen.
When she went to the office to alert the military cemetery personnel to the theft, she received an apology, the regrettable, “we can’t really do anything for you,” and a comment that could be interpreted as either a comment on Texas attitudes, or advice for the future.
“Ma’am, this is Dallas Cowboy Country,” they told Virginia. “Ain’t nobody gonna steal your Packers stuff.”
I encountered Virginia for the first time on Memorial Day, as we both were doing what we always do.
She always comes to the cemetery on Memorial Day (many other days of the year as well) to honor Jim, and to remember their life together. Me, at events like this, instead of sitting down, I wandered around during the Memorial Day ceremony at what San Antonians call “Fort Sam,” watching people, looking for the unique and unusual things and people you can’t notice if you are staring at whatever’s happening on the stage.
I noticed Virginia, who seemed to be about the age of my parents, sitting under an umbrella, between the rows of perfectly symmetrical white marble tombstones. She was close enough to hear most of the ceremony, but I guessed that she had chosen that particular spot for her chair because of who was buried there.
She had. She told me about her husband, and her son, Santiago Bueno III, who survived 9/11 at the Pentagon and helped rescue those who had been injured. We talked about military families, cancer, and other things we had in common.
I noticed a rose on a tombstone not far from Jim’s.
“That’s John’s tombstone,” Virginia said, explaining that John’s wife had died a few years earlier than Jim. Virginia had met John at the cemetery a few times as they came to remember their late spouses. (Spouses are buried at Fort Sam Cemetery with their spouses, with their caskets stacked and their names on the opposite side of the stone. John died in 2013, and a red rose his daughter had placed their glistened with raindrops as it rested against the white stone.
We talked some more about my aunt, and her son, and how he had survived both 9/11 and cancer. We talked about grandchildren, life and the beauty that surrounded us that day.
I told her about my job, and my favorite Memorial Day service, in 2013, when an aging, ailing Vietnam veteran stood in the rain, saluting his comrades, and an Army mom read me a letter from her son describing the frightening battles he and his unit had just survived in the Middle East.
Our conversation had been taking place during the ceremony. It was after we had paused for Taps and the moment of silence that Virginia laughed and told me about the stolen monument.
Virginia sent to my phone the contact information of a professional she thought might be able to help with some of the arrangements I am making for my aunt. I asked her to send me the newspaper story about her son on 9/11.
As I left Virginia there to spend some more time alone with her husband, she said, “Give me a hug. We’re family now.”
And we are. We are part of the American family, part of the family of Americans who have shared their family members with their country. Part of the family of those who gather on Memorial Day and other occasions to honor everyone who has ever put on a uniform and gone anywhere or done anything to help preserve our country and our freedom.
And, 1,000 miles away from Vinton, I saw at Fort Sam what I have seen for years at home: The cute, fun Memorial Day photos — families huddling under umbrellas, children perched the shoulders of fathers, waving small flags, worried moms straightening a teen’s uniform. I also saw the serious and somber: Crowds and cameras surrounding aging vets, listening to their amazing stories. Families mourning their first Memorial Day without their loved ones. Fresh, flower-covered graves that stand as tragic reminders of the suicide epidemic facing soldiers and veterans all over our country.
I had spent the last 14 Memorial Days with my Vinton members of that family, with the local veterans who have for years helped us to remember the service and sacrifice of American veterans.
This year, I spent the day with another part of that family, but even more than 1,000 miles from what I call home (and a million miles from my granddaughters), I have witnessed in person something that I always believed but never experienced until today: “Home” is way bigger, and our American family extends far beyond, the flags waving on our horizon.