Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery

Hillsdale:
Sen. Tom Cotton (Arkansas)-

Every headstone at Arlington tells a story. These are tales of heroes, I thought, as I placed the toe of my combat boot against the white marble. I pulled a miniature American flag out of my assault pack and pushed it three inches into the ground at my heel. I stepped aside to inspect it, making sure it met the standard that we had briefed to our troops: “vertical and perpendicular to the headstone.” Satisfied, I moved to the next headstone to keep up with my soldiers. Having started this row, I had to complete it. One soldier per row was the rule; otherwise, different boot sizes might disrupt the perfect symmetry of the headstones and flags. I planted flag after flag, as did the soldiers on the rows around me.

Bending over to plant the flags brought me eye-level with the lettering on those marble stones. The stories continued with each one. Distinguished Service Cross. Silver Star. Bronze Star. Purple Heart. America’s wars marched by. Iraq. Afghanistan. Vietnam. Korea. World War II. World War I. Some soldiers died in very old age; others were teenagers. Crosses, Stars of David, Crescents and Stars. Every religion, every race, every age, every region of America is represented in these fields of stone.

I came upon the gravesite of a Medal of Honor recipient. I paused, came to attention, and saluted. The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest decoration for battlefield valor. By military custom, all soldiers salute Medal of Honor recipients irrespective of their rank, in life and in death. We had reminded our soldiers of this courtesy; hundreds of grave sites would receive salutes that afternoon. I planted this hero’s flag and kept moving.

On some headstones sat a small memento: a rank or unit patch, a military coin, a seashell, sometimes just a penny or a rock. Each was a sign that someone—maybe family or friends, or perhaps a battle buddy who lived because of his friend’s ultimate sacrifice—had visited, honored, and mourned. For those of us who had been downrange, the sight was equally comforting and jarring—a sign that we would be remembered in death, but also a reminder of just how close some of us had come to resting here ourselves. We left those mementos undisturbed.

After a while, my hand began to hurt from pushing on the pointed, gold tips of the flags. There had been no rain that week, so the ground was hard. I asked my soldiers how they were moving so fast and seemingly pain-free. They asked if I was using a bottle cap, and I said no. Several shook their heads in disbelief; forgetting a bottle cap was apparently a mistake on par with forgetting one’s rifle or night-vision goggles on patrol in Iraq. Those kinds of little tricks and techniques were not briefed in the day’s written orders, but rather got passed down from seasoned soldiers. These details often make the difference between mission success or failure in the Army, whether in combat or stateside. After some good-natured ribbing at my expense, a young private squared me away with a spare cap.  more

h/t PHenry

14 Comments on Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery

  1. I spent a whole day at Arlington mostly by myself in May 1992 when I was there for the National day of prayer with a group from my church. I walked silently and in awe thru the grounds of Arlington looking at all the graves and headstones of the fallen Americans who gave their lives as sacrifices for our freedoms as Americans. It truly is hallowed ground and I learned an immense history lesson that day reading the names of all these men and women on their headstones and graves and where they were from and what war they served in. I’d like to go back again to spend some more time there again. And eventually as a veteran I want to buried at the Wash. State Veterans cemetery just outside of Medical Lake, Wa. where my dad a USAF veteran from 1947-50 was interred last year at the age of 88.

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  2. Another memory no longer taught in school,

    Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
    What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?
    Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight,
    O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
    And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air
    Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
    Oh, say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
    On the shore dimly seen, thro’ the mists of the deep,
    Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
    What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
    As it fitfully blows half conceals, half discloses?
    Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
    In full glory reflected, now shines in the stream;
    ‘Tis the Star-Spangled Banner, Oh long may it wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
    And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
    That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
    A home and a country should leave us no more?
    Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
    No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
    Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand
    Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
    Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
    Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation!
    Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
    And this be our motto, “In God is our trust”
    And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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  3. “Every headstone at Arlington tells a story.”

    Yes, it does. McCain’s headstone in Arlington tells a story of treason.

  4. I have shed a few tears today. This post was another time. My heart breaks for our heroes, but the dignity of sacrifice makes the tears also ones of gratitude. This pride in my countrymen is something the left will never know or understand. Their loss.

    God bless all who have and are serving. I love you.

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  5. I’d like to bury my dad in Arlington, and I will if mom goes first.

    He’ll be 94 next week. Combat vet, Pacific Theater, 32nd INF Division.

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  6. God Bless America was sung as the recessional at mass today in my church. Not a dry eye in the house. Gave me hope. I have been to Arlington, West Point and Normandy. Seeing the endless rows of headstones makes their sacrifices and their loss so very real. Everyone should visit their nearest military cemetery if they can. It’s a history lesson that won’t be forgotten. (I don’t mean the readers here BTW. Just a generalization.)

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  7. @ Lowell,
    Unless your Pops was a high ranking officer, chances are not good for interment at Arlington, unless he is cremated.
    My eldest brother served in the Old Guard and was buried by his unit in the 70s. A very moving experience. My Father is buried not too far from my brother. I miss them both.

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  8. An odd and unexpected Arlington burial. My good buddy since i moved east. He never spoke of his father. But knew his mother and she passed 10 years ago or thereabouts. I attended the funeral in Alexandria near the masonic memorial.

    To my surprise Alexandria and Arlington shut down i 395 and all side streets for her casket to be laid to rest next to her husband at Arlington who died well before 1977 which is when i made his acquaintance.

    It was sn amazing experience that I’ll never forget.
    I guess my buddie’s dad was something of a big deal.
    I knew Florence. Never met Art’s dad.
    They shut down all the major DC arteries tor her funeral. I wasn’t expecting a big deal that day.

    But it was. A somber military funeral. It’s burned into my brain. Like a tattoo.

    And don’t expect me to get through the Battle Hymn of the Republic without tears streaming down my face.
    It’s simply impossible.

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  9. My Great Uncle Jim and my Father-In-Law Walt are both interred at Arlington. Thank you both for your service.

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