ARLINGTON, Va. – I doubt that there are many Americans who could go to Arlington National Cemetery here, just miles south of our nation’s capital, without feeling at least choked up, if not actually letting loose with crocodile tears.
I came here recently for the first time, hopped off a subway, and within steps was greeted with the seemingly miles and miles, row after row, of grave sites containing the remains of our nation’s service men and women. At some angles, they go on as far as your eyes can see.
Most of the headstones are same size and same white color. All the headstones have this in common: They all mark burial sites of Americans who have served in our nation’s armed forces.
I found the experience profoundly moving.
Cemetery officials do not let you on the grass that would allow you to randomly look at all of the headstones over the 624 acres, but you can see hundreds just from the paved roads that meander through the cemetery, literally acres you can walk or see by trolley car.
And it can be heartbreaking.
I would see, for example, John Doe (so to speak), July 22, 1898-Oct. 28, 1920, and know that this person likely died in World War I. He definitely died at age 22. Sad just in itself, even if he didn’t have family back in the United States waiting for letters from the war zone, and – most of all – waiting for the soldier to return home.
WHAT IF IT HAD BEEN ME?
What if I had walked in those shoes? What if possibly growing 22 years with a good family and graduating high school and feeling the pride of enlisting … what if that had been the extent of my life experience?
What if I hadn’t lived long enough to find the wife I have, to work with the people I do, to meet the friends I have, to share long-term life experiences with family and friends or to talk about retirement and endless golf?
Many other headstones just bring pride and considerably less sadness: Like, for example, Robert Sanders, April 22, 1918-Jan. 5, 2003. You know that man probably served in World War II, maybe Korea, maybe even Vietnam, if he was career military.
There are also gravesites of the famous, like the eternal flame that marks the grave of John F. Kennedy, and all the emotions that conjures up for many of us.
And then there’s the Tomb of the Unknowns, a beautiful monument with an inscription that reads: “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.”
The tomb contains the remains of unknown American soldiers from World Wars I and II, the Korean conflict and, until 1998, the Vietnam War. Each was posthumously presented with the Medal of Honor.
Specially trained members of the 3rd United States Infantry guard the tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I watched the changing of the guard twice in a 60-minute span at the Tomb of the Unknowns, an event of somber precision and protocol.
It’s all so beautiful at Arlington. And so reverent. On the day I came here, it appeared that every middle school child in the Washington D.C. area was also here on a field trip. Even kids that young appeared able to understand this is a holy shrine in our nation, even if they’re too young to fully grasp the depth of its meaning.
My father Ernest was a lifetime military man, serving in both World War II and Korea, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before retiring in 1964 when I was just six years old.
My oldest brother Tom followed in our dad’s footsteps, rising to Colonel while serving one tour of duty in Vietnam and then some 43 years after that in the Army National Guard.
I was nine years old when Tom went to Vietnam, too young to realize that I should be worried. Tom flew reconnaissance, spying on the enemy and enemy targets in North Vietnam. I tease Tom about this now, every time he loses his ball on the golf course.
“Tom can find your golf ball,” I tell his playing partners. “He flew reconnaissance.”
Tom has a great sense of humor, which no doubt helped him make it emotionally through. His anecdote about flying into North Vietnam one time, spying an enemy solder who opened fire on Tom’s plane, putting 13 holes in the plane, cutting the plane’s fuel line and putting a bullet hole through the heel of Tom’s boot, is more than a little harrowing. I believe Tom still has the boot.
My mother Wanda, for that matter, was a nurse in the Army during World War II. She didn’t serve overseas, though she would jokingly say she did, imitating the sound of bullets flying by her head if you asked her about her war experience. She stayed on the home front, on an army base in Oklahoma.
Which reminds me of an anecdote that the late comedian George Goebel told Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” years ago. Carson noted that Goebel never left his base in Oklahoma, and Goebel quipped: “Yeah, but you never saw any Japanese planes get past Tulsa, did you?”
ALL HAVE STORIES
All of the people who serve in our military have stories. Some saw more action, so to speak, than others, but ALL show a courage that I’m not sure I can relate to. Because I did not serve. I came of age just after we stopped the military draft in this country.
Had I been drafted, I’m sure I would have done my duty, as opposed to running to Canada or seeking some college post-graduate degree in, say, bowling, or something like that. But I do strongly suspect that if I was ever on a battlefront, I wouldn’t be winning any purple hearts for bravery.
There are just so many reasons why we should honor those who serve in our military, regardless of how we may feel about any particular war or what is going on in our country at any other period in time.
Because to serve reflects bravery that cannot be matched in any other walk of life.
I don’t believe anyone enlists because they’re on some kind of power trip, and I know it’s not for the money, though the money can be good in some cases. And I’m not trying to minimize the value of the insurance or college tuition benefits that can come from military service.
The vast majority of people who enlist in any branch of our military do it because of a love and a pride for our country.
We should look at our service men and women with reverence, and that shouldn’t be limited just to the days, weeks and months after they leave the military and rejoin civilian life.
That should be revered always.
The price that they potentially pay is here in black and white at Arlington.