I was not alone. Dotting the paths and embedded in the columns and rows were fathers and children, wives and cousins, and perhaps those just there to be there. They were carrying American flags. They were carrying remembrances from a photo album or scrapbook or metal tin box containing a medal or combat badge.
Upon a gravestone I saw a photo. In the photo were five people, what appeared to be a family with three children and a dog. My guess is the photo was taken and laid here so the soldier beneath knew he has left something in this world quite remarkable … a free and loving and productive family. He was a World War II vet who died 10 years ago.
Upon another gravestone I saw a toy ship. It was red and blue with a white mast. And on the side was written “Constellation.” I do not know what it meant, but the buried sailor does. And so he is linked with a ship, a name and me as I stand beside his grave with a link to the history of his life. This sailor died 30 years ago.
Also, a family was pushing a man in a wheelchair. He had a Vietnam vet hat on, turned slightly to the right. He was dark-skinned and sad, and while I did not get close enough to see his eyes, his entire body language was one of empathy and compassion.
The family was searching up one row then down another. Seven children were alongside – four young girls and three older boys. What is remarkable about these seven is that their eyes were forward and engaged. Or written in another way, they did not have a cell phone in their hands.
Alongside the circular path towards the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame memorial, an elderly couple was walking very slowly. She had her arm wrapped in his. They were formally dressed; he was in a suit and tie and she was wearing a dress and scarf.
She wore a hat for shade, but its purple color matched the flower pattern on his tie. They were slowly walking up the path to the eternal flame, and as they did, their cadence marked the marriage of what must be decades of life together.
Down the soft green hill in front of an enormous tree stood three young girls. They were talking. I could not hear them, but they pointed to the words on a marble stone, a stone like hundreds of others in this part of the cemetery. I can imagine they spoke of a relative, a grandfather perhaps who rode the bus to an enlistment site, enlisted and never came home until he was laid into the soft earth here many years ago.
Or was he an English teacher who was young enough to enlist in the U.S. Army three days after September 11, 2001? Might the stone even be for a woman, a medic who served where the hard challenges were not killing and destroying, but saving and building?
She might have been a physician’s assistant as part of a civil affairs brigade, and on the very afternoon that she plunged the vaccination needle into a newborn Hazara baby in Afghanistan, a roadside bomb destroyed her vehicle and took this medic from us.
And in every direction I turned there were the lovely begotten emblems of memorials, the loveliness of flowers that colored the spectrum and the metal forms of ornaments standing on steel rods as markers for a life given, taken and at rest. In every direction I saw the tears of dreams, memories and reflections of battles, the orange and gray colors of a battlefield, and the emptiness of a fellow soldier who has stood over the fallen one and cries over his still body.
In every direction was the solemn breath of reverence, the acknowledgement that if servicemen and women had not been buried here, or in one of a thousand other green lawns with granite and marble markers inscribed with rank, service and location, then we might not enjoy our freedoms and liberties.
I gazed across the Potomac River and saw the memorials of Lincoln and Washington and the WWII Memorial. I walked down the emotional path of the Vietnam Memorial and alongside it the Korea Memorial. I walked past the construction work to renovate the WWI Memorial.
In every direction on that day were the physical objects of stone and concrete and cloth that reminded me of sacrifice and duty and service.
But there was a deeper value there. I walked humbly on those soils, for beneath them lay the best of who we are, those having gone into the world somewhere else and given their lives for this country.
Not too many years ago, during my Afghanistan assignment (2006), I stood on the flight line many times during the salute to the fallen, the Fallen Warrior Ramp Ceremony. I remember every moment, I held a place on Disney Street, the central road through Bagram Air Field.
I also remember my assignment in Iraq, standing at the flagpole in front of Embassy Baghdad. In 2009, within a day or two of Memorial Day, we lost two civilians assigned to Post; I knew one of them well, as he had worked for the USDA mission prior to my arrival.
There are those writers currently making the case that in the general sense, the American public is distanced from the battlefield; our all-volunteer armed forces are quite different than the older days of the mandatory draft. Many Americans have not been connected to our wars in a personal sense, but rather through the nightly news, they say. I differ.
For every one of us Americans, the remnants of these wars and battlefields and individual courses of action will be recorded in history, yes, but deep within us we are carrying the heroic results of these very cemeteries, the breath of freedom and liberty manifest as opportunity and life’s blessings to enjoy.
Let me end with this: On sacred grounds, at Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere, rest those we should always remember.
On Memorial Day, and other days as well, lay our brethren who pray the most for peace. Yes, over my last six years of working with the U.S. military, I have learned that it is the warrior who first prays for peace before entering the battlefield. I am imagine that all Arlington have uttered the words of deep introspection, of yearning for an outcome that is found in the best of us and certainly not the tragedy of war.
But in all directions, as I stood there, this was not the case. Regardless of the reasons why, the outcomes gave way to a final resting place in the soft soils and green hills and beneath the frequent shade trees that help us come to terms with our history.
On an individual effort, the terms are personal. Collectively, however, they are so profound that we must deeply consider every battlefield in the future … and what the price is to be for our being there. PDPHOTO
“Dotting the paths and embedded in the columns and rows were fathers and children, wives and cousins, and perhaps those just there to be there. They were carrying American flags.” Photo courtesy of Thinkstock Images.