Guest commentary by Jake Johnson, son of LawnAmerica owner Brad Johnson
I’m only about two months into my lawn care career now, after leaving the Marine Corps two months ago after six years serving in 1st Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment. Two months is long enough to be able to experience some customers complaining about the price of their services and being chewed out by an unforgiving customer. However, after six years of being yelled at by drill instructors, being “gently reminded” by my superiors, along with the toils and stress of war, this experience of being chewed out by a customer, and for no particular reason, was really pretty lame.
I had the opportunity to attend the 2015 Renewal and Remembrance Day through the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) earlier this week with my dad, who owns the place. This was his fourth time to come to Arlington and be a part of this, his first time being when President Reagan was in office. This was my first time to come to the D.C. area and to Arlington National Cemetery. This trip was personal to me because two of our Marine brothers from our 2010 deployment to Musa Qala Afghanistan were buried in Arlington, Kevin Cornelius and Tyler Griffin. We lost eight other brothers that summer out there with most of them buried in small cemeteries across the nation in places like Fayetteville, Ark., where our buddy Richard Penny rests.
That day, over 400 lawn care professionals, many of them owners, managers and equipment dealers, came to Arlington on their own dime in the middle of the July summer heat and a busy time of the year for most. They help treat, maintain and repair the hallowed grounds where our nation’s heroes rest. Some were veterans with friends and family buried there but most just wanted to give back to those who have given all. Pushing, sweating and working between those headstones was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Normally my eyes just watch in front of me while I push the spreader but that day, I read the headstones as I passed. Decorated World War II veterans, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, some even fighting in all three conflicts. I walked over Medal of Honor recipients, Navy Crosses and more Silver and Bronze Stars than I have ever seen. Uncommon valor really was a common virtue to these men. Most of the stones in our assigned work area, Section 65, showed most of these veterans buried here fought in one or all of the major wars and lived to see the turn of the century before passing away after a long life. They came home to build the America that we enjoy and love today. They are known as the Greatest Generation, a title earned in battles in lands far away and upon returning home to keep building and serving after their military service ended.
Once our work was done and Pops and I were worn out, we snuck away to visit the two brothers we lost in 2010. They were resting in Section 60, about a half mile away from where we worked that day. When we got there, it was much different than any of the other sections in the cemetery. This was where many of our brothers and sisters lost in the current war rest. Fresh dirt and new sod was on most of the graves in that section. There were more mementos, pictures and beer cans that would never be drank resting by the headstones. Three sharp cracks from a nearby 21 gun salute as a service member was laid to rest from a war forgotten by most people other than family and the ones there. The dates on the headstones in section 60 told a different story. 1990-2010, 1985-2003…..18, 19, and 20 year old kids. Lives cut short in the sand halfway across the world. Rows and rows of bleached granite stones, each one representing a folded American flag handed to a wife or mother. Each representing a father putting an old cardboard box full of trophies and baseball gloves up in the attic because the memory is too painful. Each representing kids growing up with a picture of a vaguely familiar young man in dress blues hanging in their living room that mommy refers to as "Daddy." These men and women volunteered during a time of war, knowing that there was a distinct possibility they wouldn’t come home.
There is an old quote that nobody can agree who it’s attributed to, but it’s worth repeating. "They say a man dies two deaths, once when he stops breathing and once when his name is mentioned for the last time." If Richard Penny was still alive today, he could care less if some patch of soil in northern Virginia had the pH balanced or aerated. That’s not what this day was about. If Penny, Cornelius, Griffin or any of the others were still here today, they would still be serving their country, community and the people around them. Just because my military service is over, it doesn’t mean it’s time to put it on cruise control and enjoy my free meal at Golden Corral every Veterans Day. These men made everything around them a better place every single day. Now that they have completed their service and are at rest, it’s up to us to continue on the legacy that they left unfinished. It’s up to us as veterans and as Americans to continue to serve long after Uncle Sam has chewed us up and spit us out.
There is some healing in giving back to others, especially for me in this situation. I think of those guys every single day and want to live a life full of meaning and servitude to honor their memory. By serving others and teaching the next generation about those who selflessly gave everything for this great land, we ensure that the names like Penny, Cornelius and Griffin will live on and be remembered for years and years to come. My three buddies, along with many others, paid the true price for us being able to enjoy a beautiful lawn, earn a living in this great business, raise a family and all the other freedoms we enjoy today. Let us never forget the true price they paid for us all to enjoy these blessings.