United States Department of Defense United States Department of Defense

DoD News

Bookmark and Share

 News Article

Commentary: Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

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.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Vice President Joe Biden places a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns during the annual Veterans Day ceremony, Nov. 11, 2010. DOD photo by Karen Parrish
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

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.

 

Contact Author

Related Sites:
Special Report: Veterans Day 2010
Photo Essay: Biden, DOD Leaders Honor Veterans

Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and other senior defense officials render honors during the playing of the national anthem as part of a Veteran's Day ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Nov. 11, 2010. DOD photo by Karen Parrish  
Download screen-resolution   
Download high-resolution


Click photo for screen-resolution imageA woman places a flag at a grave at Arlington National Cemetery, Nov. 11, 2010. DOD photo by Karen Parrish  
Download screen-resolution   
Download high-resolution



Comments

Article is closed to new comments.

The opinions expressed in the following comments do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense.

11/13/2010 4:02:11 AM
Keep telling that history: Read the novel, Rescue at Pine Ridge, the first generation of Buffalo Soldiers, website; http://www.rescueatpineridge.com A great story of Black Military History...5 stars Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the youtube trailer commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iD66NUKmZPs The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry. When you get a chance, also please visit our Alpha Wolf Production website at; http://www.alphawolfprods.com and see our other productions, like Stagecoach Mary, the first Black Woman to deliver mail for Wells Fargo in Montana, in the 1890's, “spread the word”. Peace.
- Buffalo Soldier 9, http://www.rescueatpineridge.com

Additional Links

Stay Connected