I want to extend a huge thank-you to John and Donna Kleinmaus. I have known them since 7th grade, when I first started the VFW Patriot’s Pen Essay Competition. They have been like a third set of grandparents to me for the past 6 years, and their dedication to their beliefs and the West Bend Community never fails to inspire me. They are truly wonderful people and I am proud to have had the opportunity to represent their hard work at the national level of the VFW Voice of Democracy.
Next, we went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is difficult for me to describe how I felt seeing the stories and artifacts from this time. I don’t think my words can do it justice. It is something that I believe that everyone should see. It was definitely the most moving part of my trip.
After such a serious and heartbreaking museum, we were able to lighten up at the International Spy Museum. The VFW organized a “scavenger hunt” throughout the museum. It was relieving to get my mind off the horrors of the Holocaust and run around with my new friends. My team won!
We then went and saw some of the monuments around D.C. We saw the Jefferson Memorial first, which was much larger than I imagined.
Next we went to the MLK Memorial, which was powerful. Martin Luther King had a way with words that I hope to someday achieve. Next we went to the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Looking up at the statue, I tried to imagine how the men felt as they planted the flag. It must have been a very powerful moment for our men. One of our chaperons from the VFW was in the Marines, and she shared some stories about her experiences and how she felt seeing the Iwo Jima Memorial.
The day started at the Arlington National Cemetery. It amazed me, seeing the gravestones of so many men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation. I am infinitely grateful for their service and heroism.
I had the privilege of being able to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The commitment these guards have towards this tomb is incredible. Seeing their daily ritual and dedication was an honor.
A few years ago, my family and I went to Dallas and I stood at the spot where John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. At Arlington, I was able to see where he was laid to rest.
Our second stop for the day was the Newseum. I spent an inappropriate amount of time poring over the FBI exhibits on crime. These exhibits were my favorite part of the museum.
By the time I had finished in this part of the museum, I had lost the rest of my group. I spent the rest of my time at the Newseum alternating between looking at exhibits and trying to find my group. The latter was mostly unsuccessful.
The 9/11 exhibit was very moving. Even though I do not remember the events that transpired on that day, it was chilling to see video footage and articles describing the atrocities that took place.
There was also an exhibit on Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. I loved analyzing these and learning the stories behind them. So many times, I find myself looking at photos but not seeing them.
At the Newseum, I had the time to stop and see each one. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the people in the photographs, and that made it much more real to me.
Our last event for the night was the awards ceremony. The ceremony was held in a ritzy downtown hotel. I was so nervous going in, all I remember from the lobby was the fancy elevators lined with twinkle lights.
My group was ushered downstairs to a conference room to meet with our respective VFW State Representatives. My post leaders came to support me too; John and Donna Kleinmaus. I was also lucky enough to have my mom there.
Each row of seating filed out of the room, one by one in alphabetical order. Since I represented Wisconsin, I was in the last row. I waited a decent 30-45 minutes in that room. I’m pretty sure my State Representatives thought I was losing my mind because I got up every 10 minutes to pace around.
Finally, my row was called in. I filed onto the stage and took my seat.
My heart was beating so fast. I was surrounded by bright lights and cameras and clapping people. Each name that was called made me more nervous. There was no way that my level of anxiety was healthy for my body.
I came in 17th place. 17 out of approximately 40,000 entries. That puts me in the top 0.0425% of students in this competition. I am thrilled by my placement.
Before the ceremony, I was talking to a few of my new friends, and I told them that I had already won.
And I did win. What I won was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend time in Washington, D.C. with like-minded people of my age.
I won the pride of representing Wisconsin, West Bend, and the West Bend School District in a national competition. The money was never my priority. I believe that experiences trump money in almost every circumstance. I have created memories in the past 5 days that will stay with me for the rest of my life. If that isn’t considered winning, then I don’t know what is.
I had the honor to meet the grand champion of the competition. He deserved every penny of his scholarship, and I feel confident that he will go own to do great things. He not only is a gifted speaker, but he is a kind and genuine person. I am proud of him, and of every other state winner that I met in D.C. Everyone had creative and unique ideas, and I am grateful to have met such talented individuals.
The last day of our journey together started at the Smithsonian Museums. The first one I saw was the National Archives. I saw the Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution, and The Bill of Rights. My favorite was the Constitution. It is a brilliant blueprint for America and it was an honor to see it. I was astounded by the beautiful handwriting and signatures.
I went to the Natural History Museum next. It is very similar to the natural history museum in Milwaukee, so I was done pretty quickly. I couldn’t bear to be inside when it was 65 degrees outside, so I went for a walk around the block and enjoyed the sun.
The most emotional and thought-provoking moment of my trip happened during that walk. I had walked past a homeless man a few times while walking from museum to museum. This time, I gave him a dollar. He said “May God bless you with long life and success.” I smiled at him, walked away, and almost cried. I have seen my parents give to the homeless in the past, but this is the first time I have given. I have never felt more like an independent adult than I did in that moment. The man’s kind words moved me.
I feel guilty that I didn’t give him more. I wanted to turn around and empty my wallet into his empty cup, but by the time I decided to turn around, I was ushered into the bus for our next stop. It was the singular most memorable moment of my trip.
Next, we went to the U.S. Capitol for a tour. The rotunda was being remodeled, both in the interior and the exterior. We were not able to see much more than the ground-level paintings and sculptures because of the scaffolding. We were told that there is over 52 miles of scaffolding inside the rotunda, and over 1400 cracks were being fixed.
Our last event for the trip was a riverboat cruise in the Potomac River. It was a great way to socialize with the people I had been spending time with over the past few days.
After the cruise, we went back to the hotel and said our goodbyes. Since many of us had early flights. It takes quite awhile to give 53 other people hugs and well-wishes!
I woke up at the wonderful time of 4:15 a.m. The thing I remember the most is the last image I had of Washington, D.C. from the airplane in the sky, I saw Arlington National Cemetery one last time. I saw just how huge the grounds are, how many people are buried there.
It was the perfect last image; to see the men and women who have fought for my freedom laid to rest. They are the reason I had this opportunity. They are the reason I have the rights and freedoms that I so often take for granted.
They are the reason I have a past, a future, and a vision for America.