Commentary: Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day

WASHINGTON, Nov. 12, 2010 — Vis­it­ing Arling­ton Nation­al Ceme­tery on an ordi­nary day makes the day itself extra­or­di­nary. It is a place that impos­es its own mood: reflec­tive, sweet­ly melan­cholic, unabashed­ly patri­ot­ic.
Rank upon rank of small white cross­es stand among gen­tly rolling, green hills. Old Guard sol­diers, solemn and remote, end­less­ly pace a slow and cer­e­mo­ni­al vig­il before the nation’s entombed and revered dead.

The Tomb of the Unknowns is here, as is the tomb­stone of heavy­weight cham­pi­on and Army vet­er­an Joe Louis. Ira Hayes’ grave is there, and Lee Marvin’s. The last Buf­fa­lo Sol­dier and a young woman killed in the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ings — the daugh­ter of vet­er­ans — also rest here.

On Vet­er­ans Day, Arling­ton Nation­al Ceme­tery is the military’s sacred grove, its place of deep­est mys­tery. On this day above all oth­ers, peo­ple seem drawn to its sanc­ti­ty.

Thou­sands of vis­i­tors speak­ing every lan­guage under the sun pass through Arlington’s gates on Nov. 11. This year, as a for­mer sol­dier and the wife and daugh­ter of sol­diers, I gath­ered my small courage to come here to hon­or the fall­en.

Each Vet­er­ans Day, an Amer­i­can leader places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns to hon­or America’s vet­er­ans and ser­vice­mem­bers who have died in com­bat. Today, hun­dreds of peo­ple gath­ered at the tomb, the heart of Arling­ton Nation­al Ceme­tery, in the hour before the cer­e­mo­ny.

Dot­ted through the diverse crowd were white-haired vet­er­ans in their ser­vice caps and men and women in uni­forms –- and in wheel­chairs. Patient­ly and qui­et­ly, adults, teenagers and small chil­dren watched and wait­ed. The Old Guard sol­diers paced.

Black wool over­coats rubbed shoul­ders with leather bik­er jack­ets, and red pumps stood next to run­ning shoes. Apart from an occa­sion­al mur­mur from the scores of solemn spec­ta­tors lin­ing the steps, the only sounds were the whis­per of falling leaves and the crisp crack of brass heel plates as the hon­or guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns paced off the mea­sured move­ments of the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry’s vig­il.

At 11 a.m., Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden, accom­pa­nied by Maj. Gen. Karl R. Horst, com­man­der of the U.S. Army Mil­i­tary Dis­trict of Wash­ing­ton, walked into the space where nor­mal­ly only the guards may enter.

It is a silent cer­e­mo­ny. Hon­or guards from each ser­vice slow-march into posi­tion before the wreath is placed. They are resplen­dent in dress uni­forms — dis­ci­plined, solemn, young, all races, both sex­es, all ser­vices, com­plete­ly mag­nif­i­cent.

Except for the com­mands of their lead­ers and the announce­ment of the offi­cial party’s arrival, there is no speech. Speech­es will fol­low, away from the tomb, but with­in that space so rev­er­ent­ly, so cer­e­mo­ni­al­ly guard­ed, there is no room for talk.

Biden moved for­ward and set the cer­e­mo­ni­al wreath in place. He stepped back and placed his hand over his heart as the pierc­ing bugle notes of “Taps” float­ed through the chilly, sun­lit air.

Through­out the year, Amer­i­cans old and new come to Arling­ton, per­haps, because Arling­ton holds some­thing of all Amer­i­cans.

The graves belong to vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies. But those vet­er­ans were part of, not apart from, their coun­try. Like today’s vet­er­ans, like today’s ser­vice­mem­bers –- like so many in today’s Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion — they were humans called to some­times super­hu­man effort.

Ear­li­er this week, a sergeant-turned-entre­pre­neur told me he believes Amer­i­cans sim­pli­fy our vet­er­ans as either vic­tims or heroes. Vet­er­ans are peo­ple, Zack Bazzi said, and they are as com­plex and mul­ti­fac­eted as any oth­er peo­ple.

I believe Zack is right. He was speak­ing to me at a vol­un­teer event with oth­er vet­er­ans. They were build­ing a house, and there was sweat, dirt, laugh­ter and talk of beer.

It’s pos­si­ble that Arlington’s secret is that it shows both sides of those who rest here.

These men and women sim­ply were ordi­nary peo­ple who chose to serve in the armed forces of our coun­try. Many of those resplen­dent young men and women at Arling­ton yes­ter­day — and the gen­er­als too, most like­ly — went home last night and watched tele­vi­sion, read a bed­time sto­ry or walked the dog.

Arling­ton Nation­al Ceme­tery is a mil­i­tary place. The U.S. mil­i­tary is an Amer­i­can insti­tu­tion. Part of us is in it -– a son or daugh­ter, niece or nephew, father or moth­er — and it is part of us. It is part of our his­to­ry, part of our lega­cy as Amer­i­cans, a sym­bol of our nation­al grief and our nation­al strength.

A mil­i­tary funer­al here is imbued with a weight of dig­ni­ty, of pro­found sor­row for a broth­er or sis­ter in arms. Vis­it­ing the ceme­tery to say good­bye to a friend or loved one brings an added dimen­sion to the pro­found and dread­ed act of griev­ing a death.

It offers a glimpse, even to those who have nev­er served, of the sim­ple but mys­te­ri­ous bonds –- tru­ly the bonds of a fam­i­ly — root­ed deep in the heart of those who wear or have worn the nation’s uni­form.

Next year, I hope to be among the vis­i­tors at Arling­ton on Vet­er­ans Day once again. I’ll bring my daugh­ters, and I hope they’ll share the awe that I felt here on Vet­er­ans Day 2010.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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