A veteran carrying a flag in the Southwest Missouri Veterans Parade pauses after stepping out of formation as the parade goes on around him.
The Southwest Missouri Veterans Day Parade made its way through downtown Springfield on Saturday morning with veterans, their families and members of an appreciative public paying tribute to the generations of military servicemembers participating.
I took on the assignment of photographing the parade for my job, and I really only had an hour to shoot it, so I decided to walk up and down the route in hopes of capturing some scenes I might not ordinarily shoot.
I snapped photos of the U.S. flag coming by as a young boy in a miniature Air Force flight suit took his hat off; the Missouri State University Band as they rounded the corner from South Avenue onto Park Central Square, and the people in the crowd as they waved and saluted.
As I walked along Park Central East near Big Whiskey’s, I saw three elderly men in formation who were holding up the American flag, the Prisoners of War/Missing in Action flag and another flag. Behind them were members of the Hillcrest High School Junior ROTC marching and shouting a cadence. I walked ahead a little bit and noticed that the three men in formation were down to two.
I stopped in time to look directly in front of where I was shooting. One of the elderly men carrying his flag had stepped out of formation and had grasped a side railing, clearly in some form of distress. I didn’t know if it was a medical episode or if he was simply tired; however, his breathing seemed somewhat labored.
The Hillcrest students were marching by, and an Army sergeant in dress uniform stopped to help and ask if he was okay. I began to walk back and hurriedly snapped the photo you see above.
I wanted to walk up and ask the man if he needed any help, but after turning around and walking a few steps, I turned back his direction and did not see him again. The photograph I snapped of him is the only visual evidence I have of that man, and it was an incredibly stark moment in what was otherwise a joyous occasion to celebrate the service of our nation’s veterans.
As I continued to photograph the parade, my mind kept going back to the man who stepped out of formation. The image of him no longer being able to carry the flag through the parade brought a tear to my eyes as I lifted the camera in front of my face numerous times simply to mask it from the public.
I don’t know the name of the man who could march no longer, but I’d be willing to bet that he likely knew that the frailties that beset him would render him unable to carry the flag the duration of the parade.
But frailties be damned, he carried it anyway, as far and as long as he could. He just could not make it to the end.
There is something remarkably emotional and strong about that, and there’s also something gripping about the fact he could not. It was as if the action of him stepping out of formation represented the veterans of this nation’s earlier wars slipping away — they survived the war and share stories of their service, but they can only remain with us for only so long.
That’s why, a day and a half after shooting that image, I can’t forget it.
And I don’t want you to forget it either as we go forward into Veterans Day.