As we approach Memorial Day weekend, it seems fitting to pay homage to one of America’s most hallowed parcels of land – the final resting place of over 300,000 of our nation’s heroes – Arlington National Cemetery.
On a stroll through the peaceful grounds, you can see with your own eyes the true cost of freedom. Veterans from every conflict since the beginning of our country are there. Memorials throughout the grounds remind us of our history, and the sacrifices that we paid as a nation to preserve our liberties and way of life. Presidents are buried there. Astronauts. Medal of Honor recipients. Soldiers. Marines. Sailors. Airmen. Coastguardsmen.
The Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier march on, ever vigilant, as their predecessors have done since 1937 (tombguard.org).
Visitors show their respect through silence. If they speak at all, they do so in hushed voices. Only at the Arizona Memorial have I seen the same behavior. There is a solemnity in the air that permeates the soul, demanding a quiet decorum in honor of the men and women who rest there, heroes all.
To see Arlington in all its glory – and I use that word deliberately – you should witness one of the many burials taking place every day. If a more dignified ceremony takes place anywhere in the world, I would like to see it. The Honor Guards that escort fallen comrades to their final resting places are the epitome of military perfection. Each surviving family is treated as if its loved one were the most important person in the world – and to them he or she was.
One of my final duties in uniform was having the honor of presenting the American flag to the son of a Navy pilot during his father’s burial ceremony at Arlington. As dictated by custom, I looked into his eyes as I said, “On behalf of the President of the United States and the Chief of Naval Operations, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and a grateful Navy.”
In his eyes were sadness and pride. Sadness for his family’s loss; pride for what his father had done – he had served his country with honor.
That, I think, is what Arlington represents to all of us.
(Arlingtoncemetery.net – click on the image to see the video “Farewell Marine.”)