- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Luke’s protector

When the subject of patriotism comes up during Independence Day gatherings, Ambassador Fred J. Eckert, a former Republican congressman from New York, always will have reason to brag about his grandson, Luke Eckert.

The ambassador tells Inside the Beltway that last Fourth of July, Luke, who is 9 years old and rising into fourth grade at St. Mark’s School in Oakton, was riding the shuttle train at the Atlanta airport with his parents and younger brother. As they were discussing the family’s vacation destination, Luke noticed a man dressed in fatigues and asked his father, “Is he in the military?”

Seconds later, as the Eckerts were about to depart the train, Luke broke ranks with his family and walked up to the soldier, tapping him on the hand. As the tall soldier looked down at him, the youngster stuck out his hand and said: “I want to thank you for all that you are doing to protect us.”

“It’s just something he thought of and did all on his own,” says Luke’s father, Brian Eckert. “Luke was thrilled when the soldier flashed a big smile and said, ‘You’re welcome.’ ”

Adds Ambassador Eckert, who is now retired and living in Raleigh, N.C.: “My little grandson has no difficulty figuring out who the good guys are.”

Free country

America has certainly come a long way since the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.

The country’s first Veterans Affairs-issued gravestone bearing both a Christian cross and Wiccan pentacle will be dedicated today at Arlington National Cemetery, in tribute to Capt. William ORourke, a Christian who is buried there, and his wife, Jan ORourke, a Wiccan.

Selena Fox, senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, one of America’s oldest and largest international Wiccan churches, will conduct an interfaith service at the cemetery today, while Wiccan priestess Paula Johnson, a close friend of Mrs. O’Rourke, will offer the eulogy. Several members of the Order of the Pentacle, a Wiccan/Pagan veterans association, will also be on hand — to administer “blessings.”

The O’Rourke gravestone is one of the first of four veteran grave markers with pentacles issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of the settlement of a religious-discrimination lawsuit against the VA brought on behalf of Circle Sanctuary by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

There already exists at Arlington a gravestone with a pentacle marking the burial site of a Wiccan couple, World War II veteran Abraham Kooiman and his wife, Rosemary.

‘Lucky’ ones

From the mountains to the prairies, readers of Inside the Beltway this Fourth of July write about their experiences while paying homage to the monuments, memorials and museums in the nation’s capital.

Patrick Beckerdite, a property manager in Des Moines, Iowa, writes: “My wife and I lived in Harrisonburg, Va., for eight years in the 1990s, and we became tour guides for friends and relatives who visited from the Midwest. We took many tours of the White House — during the day, candlelit on December evenings, and those tours when they opened the grounds to the public twice a year.

“We got to know the U.S. Capitol … and loved to dine on Senate bean soup. The Archives, the Smithsonian, Old Town, Arlington Cemetery … all the monuments became our ‘haunts.’ There are two things we haven’t done yet: eat at the Old Ebbitt Grill and tour the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, so we are going to have to come back soon.

“Thanks for the nice reminder of our wonderful years near Washington, which remains one of our most favorite cities to this day. You are fortunate to be able to call it home. Happy Fourth of July.”

Ben Pethe, meanwhile, is a project manager at Tampa General Hospital in Florida. Just two weekends ago “while my wife was at an American Library Association conference in D.C., I took the time to travel with her and refresh myself with a tour of the monuments of Washington.”

Mr. Pethe says he began his day at the National Archives — “the Archives always bring goose bumps” — and finished on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “where I got a good history lesson from listening to a woman tell her young children about the Martin Luther King speech.”

His most emotional stop, however, was at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: “Since I am a Vietnam veteran (1964-66), I always stop at the memorial and visit with old friends that were not as lucky as I was.”

John McCaslin can be reached at 202/636-3284 or jmccaslin@washingtontimes.com.

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