For all of the rolling green hills and trees it is a garden of stone. While shaped by the topography of the region it isn’t the shape of land that tells the real story of where I’m standing. Rather, it’s the carved stones. Names, dates, awards and achievements decorate them all. They tell the story of each life and body now joined for eternity within its soil. It’s Arlington. All you have to do is say the name and people immediately know the hallowed American ground where some of its greatest now rest.
Contained within its grounds are two presidents, dozens of astronauts and explorers, hundreds of notable statesmen, over 5,000 unknown graves and more than 400,000 others who served their country in its best and worst of days.
If you walk through the grounds as I did to watch members of the U.S. Army’s Old Guard plant over 200,000 small flags at every grave for Memorial Day, you can hear the sounds of the three rifle volleys travel through the air as another person is enjoined to its grounds. From where I’m standing, even the noise of the descending aircraft making their final approaches into Reagan National Airport can’t seem to mask the crisp sound of “CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!”
Those sounds are just part of the surrounding scenery that remind you that this most solemn of places where heroes have taken their rest for over 150 years and is also a place of regular grief for families bringing their loved ones to newly and finally rest here. Whether through combat, accident, illness or old age, Arlington’s gates and grounds are opened daily to faithfully welcome those in the nation’s service to final rest. But it’s not rest or mournful ritual that I’m watching as I stand under the shade of a magnolia tree.
Scattered throughout the cemetery grounds, members of the Old Guard are meticulously paying their respects to each and every carved stone. Wearing their fatigued caps and BDUs, each of them has a backpack filled with American flags for placement at every marker. Unlike the pride-filled banter that fills the chilled air of mid-December at the annual Wreaths Across America program, where thousands descend on Arlington to lay holiday wreaths, today there is solemn calm to this yearly process.
As one soldier helps the other extract a pack of wrapped flags from a backpack, another is pausing in front of the carved white marble taking in the name and life of the person they honor this afternoon. Unfurling a flag from the bundle, I watch as a soldier places the toe of their boot against the front of the white stone. After ensuring their foot is straight and perpendicular to the marker, the soldier takes the wooden staff holding the American flag and slides it down the right heel side of their boot, pushing the flag into the Earth. Stepping back and ensuring the flag is securely in the ground, there’s another pause followed by a stiffened back and body as their right hand rises in salute.
Quietly watching this I can’t help but notice the soldiers around me can’t be much older than my two oldest children (21 and 18). All of their faces are young but every one of them is resolute and focused. It’s more than obvious that the gravity of their afternoon assignments on this warm May afternoon are not lost on any of them. For some of them, they’ve been there laying to rest their buddies from combat tours, let alone the parents, siblings, friends and family who have died and been interred here. All of them have undoubtedly served as escorts, Honor Guards and pallbearers. Each a position of daily ritual, especially at a place like Arlington. But today, it’s the ritual of remembering everyone within the grounds. Every person. Every service. Every name. Every stone. From every conflict from the Civil War to today.
That’s a lot of sorrow and grief for any set of hillsides to contain, but that’s not the feeling you see in action. It’s something entirely different. What you see is honor. You see respect. You see service. And you see a new generation of people embracing those mantles of character and not so much wearing them on their uniforms, but in the simple acts of planting a flag and snapping a salute.
It is by far one of the most simple of acts any one of them wearing their service uniforms may ever perform. But it is by far one of the most noble and generous things they will ever do in their lives.
Respect, like reverence, seems to be a lost aspect in today’s world. But not today. And not here. This is Arlington. RESPECT and REVERENCE will always reside here, and it has another generation carrying those mantles forward. Which is why this garden of stone will always be preserved and hallowed ground.