Now and again a person may stumble across events that will impact their life with the force of a wrecking ball. For Staff Sgt. Tim Chambers, he found himself overwhelmed with indecision that was tearing his mind in every direction.
His quandary: how to reach each and every veteran’s emotions and heal their pain with respect and compassion.
Chambers’ spontaneous march into the middle of the street seven years ago to render honors to the thousands of veterans riding in Rolling Thunder was his answer. A salute was his method.
During the ride that takes place Memorial Day weekend every year, Chambers stood with his hand on his makeshift memorial at 23rd and Constitution Avenue and the lone Marine addressed the crowd.
“This is for my brothers and sisters and your fellow patriots. It stands here in honor of those in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is their memorial,” he said.
Boots, a rifle, flack jacket and Kevlar were displayed proudly at his feet. Families of fallen service members donated personal effects of their loved ones to symbolize their body and spirit.
“The bullets of morality fire more true than our lead,” continued Chambers. “I stand here to show respect and welcome these veterans home who returned at a time filled with negative sentiment for their service. We have not forgotten.”
He also said we especially have not forgotten the 8,124 servicemen from Korea who are still considered Prisoners of War or Missing in Action, the 120 from the Cold War, 1,740 from Vietnam and the thousands more from various conflicts around the world.
The rolling thunder from thousands of motorcycles emerged from Memorial Bridge and Chambers’ heels slammed together, his fist lined his trouser seem and his right hand snapped to a stern salute perfectly aligned with his brow. Chambers’ arm was as unwavering as the ground he stood on.
By noon, sunshine engulfed the morning mist and echoes of encouragement joined with the roar of engines in a symphony of compassion as the Rolling Thunder procession made their way through the district.
As veterans rode passed Chambers, shouts of “Semper Fi” and “Ooh-rah” emerged through the rumble of exhausts.
“Semper Fi, thank you for your service,” Chambers replied while looking directly into their eyes.
Chambers latter said that it look as if many of the veterans’ eyes who rode by still had remnants of the thousand yard stare acquired in combat. However, Chambers’ eyes held the thousand yard stare of sincerity.
“I haven’t been deployed so I have to do everything, everything I can to make a difference on the home front. I can’t grasp what these and current combat veterans have gone through but I can keep giving what I do,” Chambers explained.
Occasionally a veteran, some wearing jean jackets weighed down with patches, medals and patriotic pins, would stop his bike and march to Chambers’ position to show his gratitude by returning a salute.
“I consider it my homecoming,” said Robert L. Seltz, who served as a corporal from October 1970 to April 1972 in Vietnam. “Seeing staff sergeant up their gives me pride. I want to stick my chest out, walk taller and hold my head high.”
Seltz explained that over the years, seeing Chambers’ strength standing for hours has given some veterans, including himself, the courage to finally confront the pain they kept inside for so long.
After an hour of holding his salute, discomfort began to set in. Salt rings grew around his collar and his face turned dark red, but he did not falter as there were still thousands of veterans left to honor.
“I do this for the pain,” he explained. “It’s all about the pain. A lot of these guys still hurt and if I can relieve their pain through mine just for one brief moment, then I’ve done my job.”
After three hours and seven minutes, the statuesque Marine stumbled back and dropped to his knees as the last motorcycle passed. He stood slowly regaining his strength and balance and placed his hand on the memorial then closed his eyes and prayed.
Throughout the day hundreds of emotional veterans thanked him for his efforts and shook his hand. Each time Chambers said “No, it was my pleasure. Thank you.”
Before the ride began, veterans were asked to throw a flower at Chambers’ feet in a salute to him, but the flowers took on an unintended and more profound symbolism for one girl. As he stumbled back from exhaustion, a young red headed girl walked up to Chambers wearing her emotion on her face.
“Thank you so much, my name is McKenzie,” she told him. “I lost my father in Iraq five days ago…” her emotions overwhelmed her words and she buried her face into Chambers’ shoulder.
After a long embrace he walked with her to where the flowers were thrown and whispered, “These were thrown down here for your father. You my never hear this but he was a hero. He preserved freedom and left behind a legacy of leadership that will continue to save lives.”
They stood there for what Chambers said felt like hours in an embrace of compassion that consumed her sadness. She stepped back, thanked him once more with a smile and simply turned and walked away. Chambers said he never found out her full name or who her father was, but he will remember the moment for the rest of his life.
Chambers said coming to Washington for the past seven years has been quite a journey. This year, he accompanied Carry the Flame, a non-profit organization raising awareness about the needs of veterans, through every state across Interstate 40 and participated in the name readings of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan, rendering a salute at each location. The journey also lead him to console and break bread with more than 200 ‘Gold Star’ families.
“Having him here gives me a link back to my son and it is more than I could ever ask for,” said Molly Morel, the proud mother of Capt. Brent Morel, who died in Iraq in 2004.
“When you meet a gold star mom, time stops,” explained Chamber’s wife Juls. “They have given so much and have made the biggest sacrifice of their son’s and daughters to America. It is just as important to honor the families as it is to honor the fallen.”
Chambers said his determination to thank each and every veteran is what drives him each year.
It all started seven years ago while volunteering with the Korean War Commemoration Committee, educating people at the National Mall on the history of what some call ‘The Forgotten War,’ he said.
“I was shaking hands and thanking veterans for their service, civilians for their support and families of deceased for their sacrifice to our nation,” explained Chambers. “I thought to myself, ‘how could I reach all of them at once?’ I jumped in the middle of the street and rendered a salute.”
A salute is known to everyone, he added. “We salute our president, dignitaries, flags, our dead and it is a national sign of respect to those who have sacrificed and served.”
Chambers’ selflessness has driven him to do more than just his job, though he embraces a humble demeanor.
On Sept. 11, 2001, a day that lives not as a scar, but an uproar of patriotism and conviction in America, Chambers was walking up the hill away from the Pentagon. A plane flew over his head and his eyes followed it as it impacted the Pentagon.
“So many things were going through my mind, but it seemed like my feet began to carry themselves toward the burning wreckage,” he recalled. “We worked for days bringing survivors and bodies from inside and when the Army general who was there told us to go home, we stayed.”
Chambers said this event helped instill the conviction to stand on the corner of 23rd and Constitution Avenue for so many hours.
“I’ll be here for the rest of my life. The only thing that can take me away would be a deployment,” Chambers said.
Chambers has ambitious goals for next year’s Memorial Day and hopes he can reach out to even more veterans than ever before.
“I want to line the side of the street with children saluting the veterans as the pass,” explained Chambers, as his inflection reached new levels of excitement. “The median spanning the whole street will be filled with dedications from ‘Gold Star’ families of their loved ones and perhaps one day these items will grace a memorial dedicated to the heroism of the generation fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.”