I am untouched by war. I am one of the growing number of Americans for whom Memorial Day is simply a long weekend representing the warm promise of summer and the opening of BBQ season. With the ravages of war yet to penetrate my immediate circle of family and friends, I am incognizant of the sacrifices made for my liberty. So, on this Memorial Day, I have come to Arlington Cemetery, to gain a greater appreciation of the cost of freedom and pay tribute to those willing to pay the ultimate price.
I follow a troop of lean, muscular young men, sporting identical crew-cuts, up the escalator from the Arlington Metro station. On the backs of their white t-shirts is a photo of their fallen comrade. The fronts are emblazoned in red and blue lettering pronouncing; Freedom Isn’t Free.
I’m caught up in the throng of people streaming into the entrance where a smiling volunteer greets me with a handful of crimson roses.Clutching the flowers, I meander somberly along Roosevelt Drive. On either side, regimented rows of white tombstones stretch out across manicured lawns. Miniature American flags have been placed before each grave. Visitors respectfully step into the grassy corridors and gently drape a single rose across the top of the headstones. Here and there, small groups huddle around their beloved’s plot, kneeling in sadness, leaning together in loss, hugging each other in remembrance. I am keenly aware that I have no particular person upon which to bestow my rose.
I become engrossed in reading the names and epitaphs chiseled on the marble tablets. Each one represents a story, a life, a family, a piece of history etched into the souls of those left behind. The identical rows of the enlisted men give way to the larger elaborate monuments and memorials of the top military brass and famous historical figures.
On a high grassy knoll, an eternal flame burns at the site of President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie, poignantly flanked by the graves of their stillborn children. Along the hillside are other famous Kennedys; Robert, Ted, and Joseph. Piles of roses adorn them all.
President Obama is here today. We are held at the bottom of the hill while the President gives his speech and presents a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. The captain entertains us with tidbits of information about his regiment of sentinels dedicated to guarding the Tomb. He explains how the guards, symmetrically spaced along the road, will come to arms just as the flagged motorcade reaches them. As the lead men snap into position, the first resounding crack of the 21-gun salute pierces the air, and the black processional vehicles round the corner. The crowd raises their cameras and waves their hands in salute to the President as he is whisked along, concealed behind smoky glass.
At the Tomb, the presentation of the wreaths continue. Uniformed representatives from Veterans military associations, service organizations and advocacy groups approach the tomb bearing floral arrangements. From each, the sentinels accepts the patriotically decorated offerings, then strides stoically to place them at the foot of the monument.
On each side, ancient men, slightly disheveled in the heat, teeter stiffly to hold the flag aloft. The line of wreath-bearers is long.
In his speech, Obama recognized that “today most Americans are not directly touched by war” and may not “always see or fully grasp the depth of sacrifice, the profound costs that are made in our name.”
“But it is here,” he said, “on this hallowed ground, where we choose to build a monument to a constant thread in the American character — that character — that selflessness — beats in the hearts of the very first patriots who died for a democracy they had never known and would never see. It lived on in the men and women who fought to hold our union together, and in those who fought to defend it abroad — from the beaches of Europe to the mountains and jungles of Asia.”
As I lay my roses across a tombstone, I feel deeply touched by war. I feel a sense of privilege and responsibility to make the most of my life. For today, I’ve seen for myself the true cost of being free.