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)