April in Arlington

April in Arlington
by Wade Sanders

(The Senators are John Kerry and Edward Kennedy)

It is a bitter cold Washington morning, the kind that can’t decide whether to rain, sleet, or snow. The sky looms dark and dappled above us. Gusts of wind stir leaves across the road and around the precise marble rows. An aide remarks that the umbrellas are in the car. The senator cradling the yellow roses he will place on a young man’s coffin squints at the sky and says, “Not during this, it won’t.”

We are waiting for the funeral procession to arrive. The line of vehicles drives towards us, along a road framed by trees, stark black limbs naked but for the first hints of budding leaves. Five young men of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York, the most deployed division in the United States Army, the one pledged to “Climb to Glory,” stand easy together in their Class As. The wind carries bits of their conversations. They are talking about their brother, a young man of 22, killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Standing out from the badges and medals festooning their breasts, is the mark of the warrior, the Distinguished Combat Infantryman’s badge. One of them shifts uneasily on his still healing leg . . . another Taliban Marksmanship Medal, the young man mutters, referring to his Purple Heart. They exude vitality, trim and fit in their green uniforms, black berets set at jaunty angles. I am so proud of them. Part of me that wants to join them. These are men who, as Senator Max Cleland says, “have been there, done that, and have a few holes in their t-shirts.” Those of us who have served in combat understand. Ours is a patriotism that is personal: our loyalty lies with the comrades we love, a love forged by adversity: a love that few will ever understand. And it comes at far too dear a price.

I turn to the representative of Arlington National Cemetery and ask, “How many now?”

“Around thirty or so a day,” he replies. “About half are the usual, World War II, Korea, and some Vietnam, most of the others are from Afghanistan and Iraq. Arlington is very busy these days.”

When I worked in the Pentagon we used to call Arlington the “Marble Garden.” Standing in the midst of the endless rows of white marble, I see much more than that. The names and the dates of their lives speak to all who come here. My eyes glide along the marble biographies. One catches my eye, Maj. Phyllis Wilson. 1959-2007. Patriot, Mother, Grandmother, Purple Heart recipient, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. So many names; so many Bronze Stars; so many lost futures.

Even as we stand, and the black hearse rolls up, I can hear the distant volleys of other brave men and women returning to the earth. The Army Old Guard, escorts to the fallen, appear, as does a young brigadier general and a chaplain. With silent precision the Old Guard glides the casket from the hearse and turning in unison, take their first steps towards the end of this day’s duties. We stand to attention and salute the passing casket, honoring the man inside as much as the flag that covers him.

The family falls in behind the casket and to our left, on a knoll, stand six riflemen. The senators walk with the family. One of them, a combat veteran himself, tells them how proud he is of their son and how sorry he is for the sacrifice. Hands try to reassure and comfort; words of sympathy are whispered. The wind freshens; coats are drawn tighter.

The coffin rests above the ground, draped in a flag, rippled by the breeze. The Old Guard fold the flag in a well-rehearsed rhythm, solemn and precise. The mother and father watch. A perfect star marked triangle is handed to the general. He walks slowly to the mother and kneels, handing her the flag and offering the words that most only hear in movies: “A grateful nation . . .” She sobs. Her husband holds her.

The air is tinged acrid with the cordite of the volleys. The lone bugler sounds “Taps,” each note more sorrowful than the last.

My April morning at Arlington is over.

There are many such cemeteries. All Americans should visit one. We must never forget the courage and sacrifice of those who lie there, and we must never forget the circumstances that brought them there.

(Cross-posted at Military.com)

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7 Responses to April in Arlington

  1. Ginny Cotts says:

    Thank you so much Wade, you write beautifully of a tragedy. The way this administration has kept the coffins out of sight has added to our lack of understanding and made it more difficult to pay our respects to the soldiers and their families.

    When people die at these ages, especially those who have achieved so much, I always grieve at what the country and the world have lost from the contributions they could have made. To their families first and then the rest of us.

    The fabric of our lives and our country is being torn far more than many realize.

  2. Connie says:

    Beautifully written, Mr. Sanders. I felt as thought I was there sharing in the families’ grief. I believe that if more of these burials were shown, the reality of the futility of war would be apparent. Then the fearless warriors among us would demand peace the way John Kerry did when he realized that young patriots were being sacrificed by men who simply love power and money and saving face more than young lives. This war was not waged for any noble cause. It is heart-breaking to realize that while acts of heroism occur on a daily basis over in Iraq, the presmise for the war is still bogus. Let this be the last generation that “solves” problems through war instead of diplomacy and understanding. We should value our young treasures more than that. Thank you for your excellent post. It should somehow be read on the nightly news, so others could feel the depth of the suffering of those left behind.

  3. Darrell Prows says:

    Every soul on the planet has the same right to enjoy freedom and democrcay as every other. Also, those of us in the vanguard have the responsibility to help pave the way for those hoping to catch up.

    Gratefully, much of our recent history screams that it is unlikely that we will create the desired changes at the point of a gun.

    Now if we could only find a candidate able to shine a bright light on where we need to go from here.

  4. Buzz says:

    Wade, thank you so very much for posting this. As a Vietnam war veteran it brought back many bitter memories of the folly of politcally motivated wars.
    I am not lying when I say that my eyes were moist with tears as I finished reading this.
    It seems we never learn the lessons of history. The president does not want Vietnam mentioned in the same breath as Iraq. However, the comparisons are many, stark, and tragic. To paraphrase singers Peter, Paul, and Mary of the 1970’s, How many more men must die, before we know we can’t win, “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind”.

  5. Wade

    Thank you for this moving post. I’ve always been very impressed by the fact that both of the good Senators from Massachusetts make a point of attending many of the funerals at Arlington. It’s something that more should do and something Bush has never done.

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  7. mbk says:

    thank you so much for this moving and beautifully written piece.