Honoring Iwo Jima

Yokota Air Base, Japan -- “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, we will be landing in Iwo Jima shortly. Local weather is around 72 degrees and the time is approximately 10:37 a.m. We want to thank you for flying in our C-130H,” announced the pilot over the speakers, jokingly imitating a commercial airline announcement.

About 15 minutes later we were on the ground, landing on what seemed like an abandoned base in the middle of the ocean. The buildings were ancient, their paint was peeling and everything was hushed except for the voice of the excited visitors eager to explore the island and make it to the summit of Mt. Suribachi, a site famous for the flag-raising photo taken during the battle.

I was ready to see the island. We started our 10 mile trek under the beating sun, heading toward the mountain and stopping at the beach.
Rusted aircraft parts, anti-aerial weapons and other heavy artillery lied around different parts of the island. Rust was king in Iwo Jima. It was everywhere, on the buildings, on the cars, even lying from one side of the beach to the other in scattered thick metal pieces; remnants of the historic battle that happened there 72 years ago.

Making my way back to the path was just about the most difficult point of my journey. The terrain was treacherous. Getting off of the beach made me feel like I was walking in a cartoon-like quicksand, seemingly making my efforts to move each more useless than the last. I developed a sweat just making it back to the path. I thought to myself, “How did those guys do this?”

Along my path to Mt. Suribachi, I could see the unmistakable signs of the war, fenced fields of ‘death’ where not even grass would dare grow, danger signs warning visitors about possible unexploded ordinances, half-sunken ships giving their way to rust along the beach, and numerous memorials celebrating the years of peace the U.S. and Japan now hold.

I arrived at the base of the mountain and finally found some shade, something I had taken for granted all my life but now believe it to be some type of blessing on the island. I thought that being from Puerto Rico, a 72 degree day along the beach and hiking a mountain would be right up my alley.

I was wrong.

Aching legs and mental exhaustion took over. I wanted to stop and turn back. My once trusty camera was now betraying me, getting heavier and heavier as I grew wearier. My combat boots proved ineffective against the terrain. Still, I mustered up all my energy and began my ascent to the top.

After what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was less than an hour, I reached the summit of Mt. Suribachi.

This mountain, now a monument of those who gave their lives for their country, stands triumphant over Iwo Jima, overlooking the island. And I was there, honored to be leaving my footprint on the same mountain top those service members did before me.

As a way of paying respects, small memorials celebrating the lives of those who died in the battle speckled the summit, decorated with their brothers and sisters in arms’ mementos from their military career; stacking on top of each other, making it apparent that no amount of commendation would be enough for the bravery of these men.

Some visitors told stories and educated others about the battle that took place on the island and some observed a moment of silence, noticeably touched by the unique beauty of the site.

Now overlooking the rich-green island and remembering my struggles, I saw the path I had taken and everything sunk in; the battle that took place, the men who lost their lives, the flag that was raised and how my journey to the summit failed in comparison, and I wasn’t tired anymore.