Have you visited Arlington National Cemetery? What did it mean to you?
Last Saturday, I visited Arlington National Cemetery for the first time. We went straight to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, arriving just before a changing of the guard. The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all weather by the sentinels from 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. This regiment is known as The Old Guard—it is the oldest active unit of infantry, founded in 1784 as the First American Regiment. (Care to read more? Here’s a link within Arlington’s website explaining the guard at the tomb.)
The changing of the guard takes place every half hour in the summer, ever hour in the winter, and every hour at night. The sentinels are dressed immaculately. The ceremony is precise, controlled, decorous, and elaborate. There were two wreath-laying ceremonies during the changing of the guard we attended, one by a family and one by a group of Vietnam veterans.
I have seen many images over the years—rows and rows of identical white markers, the eternal flame on John F. Kennedy’s tomb, the changing of the guard. What I hadn’t seen were the waves upon waves of veterans making a pilgrimage to Arlington. It wasn’t considered a crowded day when we were there, but even so there were hundreds and hundreds of veterans. We rode the bus with dozens of Vietnam veterans from Middleton, Connecticut.
But what struck me most were the numbers of veterans from WWII. Many were in wheelchairs; some breathed with the assistance of oxygen. All were escorted by a group of volunteers who, according to a cemetery staffer, were members of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit that pays for and escorts WWII vets to Washington, D.C. When the ceremony was over and we were walking away, an EMT vehicle raced up the hill to treat a veteran who might have made his last trip.
Consider these questions:
Have you been to Arlington? What did it mean to you?
AND, think about this: Arlington honors our veterans, long past and present. But as Veterans Day approaches, we have to ask whether we are doing enough for the thousands of war casualties coming home from the Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places. What do you think?
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