by Melissa Brunner
It was an honor to be included in Saturday's Salute to Our Heroes military gala in Topeka. Having an opportunity to say thank you in person to the men and women who serve and their families is something I love to do, and it was a treat to hear stories from a few of our servicemen and servicewomen. I asked a couple at our table, for example, where they were stationed before coming to Fort Riley. He chuckled when he answered, "Hawaii!" But, he said, he and his wife do enjoy Kansas and, being from Iowa and Illinois, are thankful to be closer to family. A Lt. Col. had left an MRE at my seat as a gift - I'm told it is a good flavor! The soldier at our table then shared some insights into navigating the culinary waters during his two deployments to Iraq!
While those conversations put the realities of military life into a light-hearted perspective, there were several moments that drove home the harsher realities about which there is no joke. I was presenting an award to the VFW and asked to be introduced to their representative, Lynn Rolf. We approached his table and were told he was seated with several Gold Star families - their loved ones had lost their lives serving our nation. They went around the table and introduced themselves, names I recognized from reading them on the news. These were the faces behind those names, the ones left behind and to whom we also owe a debt of gratitude. When Lynn accepted the VFW award, he recognized the families, a moment which brought the audience to its feet in an extended ovation.
An equally poignant moment came before dinner, when our attention was drawn to a small table at the front of the room to the side of the stage. I had never been to a military gala before and was unfamiliar with this tradition, The White Table, honoring those killed in action, missing in action or held prisoners of war. I have included a photo below and share with you the symbolism of each element, as described on the web site for the Armed Forces History Museum.
The tablecloth chosen for the table is always white. White symbolizes the pure intention with which the comrades honored have served.
The table is small with a setting for just one person, reflecting the vulnerability of one prisoner against his enemy.
A single rose in a vase sits on the table symbolizing the blood that has been shed. The rose also represents the families and loved ones that have been left behind and the faith they uphold that their loved one will one day return.
A slice of lemon is placed on a bread plate as a reminder of their bitter fate. And the salt on this plate symbolizes the tears that have been shed by their families as they quietly wait.
A glass on the table is inverted which denotes their inability to be with us and toast with us this night.
A candle on the table represents the light in our hearts that accompanies the hope that they will one day find their way home.
A chair is placed at the table and remains empty, for they are not here with us.