This Mullings was first written for Memorial Day, 2001 – four months before 9/11. Our son, @ReedGalen, was then a young member of the White House advance team in charge of President George W. Bush’s visit to Arlington National Cemetery on that day.
On this particular Memorial Day we remember, not just the Service Members who have fallen in battle, but the children, teachers, parents, and other adults who have fallen at nightclubs, at places of worship, at retail stores and, of course, at schools.
We ask, at long last, for our political leaders to find some common ground on ownership and use of high-capacity assault weapons so that these innocents, as President Abraham Lincoln famously said in 1863 of our military heroes, “shall not have died in vain.”
The Mullings Director of Standards & Practices and I went to Arlington National Cemetery to attend the annual Memorial Day observance.
The cemetery is directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. These two historical, mystical, sites are connected by the Memorial Bridge.
At the entrance to the Cemetery there is a sign which asks visitors to keep in mind the true nature of this place:
Welcome to Arlington National Cemetery
America’s most sacred shrine.
These are hallowed grounds.
We made our way up and down the curving walkways, past the small groups of school-aged children and their chaperones listening to docents working to inspire the students.
We passed rows and rows of American flags which had been placed in the ground in front of each and every headstone. There are over some 400,000 heroes buried at Arlington.
Generals and privates. Admirals and seamen.
Each headstone gets its own flag.
Each flag, the same size.
Each life, the equal of every other.
We walked the familiar grounds, grass wet from days of thunderstorms, the morning still cloudy and threatening. Having found what we were looking for, we paused and reflected.
There is a low-key ritual in the Amphitheater.
We entered, each taking one of the small American flags which were being handed out by elderly vets. We read the line from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address inscribed above the stage:
“We, here, highly resolve that those dead
shall not have died in vain.”
On cue, the Air Force Band and Chorus began to perform. On cue, the sun peeked out.
Off in the distance, there was a barked order followed by the report of a cannon, then another order, another report. Twenty-one times; announcing the arrival of the Commander-in-Chief, President George W. Bush, on the grounds.
During it all, the crowd stood silently.
At the playing of the National Anthem, military personnel snapped a salute, civilians put hands on hearts.
The President placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns which is located to the rear of the Amphitheater on a large, elevated deck, out of our sight.
We could hear, very faintly, the sound of taps.
The crowd was hardly breathing; as if breathing, alone, might drown out the sound of the bugle.
The President arrived on the stage without Ruffles and Flourishes.
The crowd was silent.
This was not a ceremony of pomp and circumstance, nor an occasion for soaring rhetoric.
The President spoke, quietly, of sacrifice, and of duty, and of honor.
He spoke of young men and young women who would never live out their lives. He spoke of a last kiss between a husband and his wife; of a last wink and wisecrack of a brother to a sister as a bus prepared to leave; of a father and his son hugging for a final time as he got into line to board his flight.
Afterward, we stood at the Tomb of the Unknowns to watch the Changing of the Guard; the silent military ballet that takes place there 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Arlington National Cemetery, on Memorial Day, has nothing to do with the sweep and grandeur of history, nor the gigantic commitment of resources to battles and wars; nor grand strategies and brilliant tactics.
It is the place where – and the day when – we remember the individual men and women who were killed at Bull Run, and Belleau-Wood, at Iwo Jima, on Omaha Beach, and in Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and all the other unlocatable places with unpronounceable names where we have far too often sent young men and women to fight and, far too often, to die.
For us, Arlington National Cemetery, on Memorial Day, has everything to do with a single white headstone nestled in a neat row among all the other white headstones next to it, in front of it, and behind it.
Up hills and down swales.
It stands, along with the others, in silent acceptance of a nation’s gratitude.
Having found it, we paused. The one among the 400,000. The one with these words carved upon it:
John Hugh Curran
United States Air Force
World War II
Flags in hand, in the wet grass, on a gray morning of Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, my wife and I once again paid our respects to her dad.
And prayed silently, that he, here in the company of his comrades; in the company of heroes, might rest.
See you next week.