Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from across the Washington area who gathered yesterday amid the tombstones of a quarter-million colleagues to welcome the Easter sunrise had the bombing in Yugoslavia weighing heavily on their minds.
"Many people are in harm's way this morning, some of them our own sons and daughters," Rear Adm. A. Byron Holderby, chief of chaplains for the Navy, told the crowd of 5,000 gathered in the marble amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns for the annual service. "Terribly difficult decisions are being made by our leaders, and our own souls are troubled, perhaps, as we try to find where the best path lies."
"Hopefully God in his wisdom will find a solution because obviously we can't," said Army Lt. Col. Patrick Wesley, one of those attending the service.
Easter services have been held at Arlington since 1921, through times of peace and war. Yesterday, in comparison with services in recent years, there was "more emphasis on praying for people in harm's way," said Tom Sherlock, the cemetery's historian. "It's a little more real this time."
There is unease among many members of the area's military community at the developments in Kosovo and concern that the conflict will widen and the U.S. commitment will increase. But none at yesterday's service spoke out against U.S. involvement in the conflict.
"While I believe what we're doing is appropriate, it's painful to the Kosovars and painful for the world to see," said Everette Gray, a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam.
For many, thoughts were on the three Army soldiers captured by Serb-led forces.
"My heart and prayers go out to the three soldiers and their families," said Army Lt. Col. Tom Burnett, an Arlington resident who served with the 1st Armored Division in Bosnia. "That's what's uppermost in my mind. I feel badly for Serbia to a certain extent, but not when you look at the refugee situation."
Several people said they had spent recent days talking of little else but the fate of the captured men. "We as a family have dedicated the last three days focusing on that conflict, focusing on the three young soldiers and their families, and also the hundreds of thousands of people there who won't be enjoying what we enjoy," said Wesley, a Stafford County resident who attended the service with his wife and daughter.
Gray struggled with the question of whether the U.S. government should send ground forces. "There's a moral responsibility that requires us to do something to stop it," said Gray, a resident of Herndon.
But he confessed to being torn because a decision to expand U.S. involvement could lead to two of his daughters -- one in the Army and one in the Navy -- going to war. His eldest daughter, in particular, an Army doctor at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington, would likely be sent to help treat the wounded in the event of a ground war, Gray said. "I try not to think about it," he said. "It could happen, especially if we commit ground forces."
Gray's wife, Sharon, expressed similar sentiments. "People have mixed emotions," she said. "But I haven't heard many people say we shouldn't be there, which is unusual. Before Desert Storm, that's what a lot of people were saying."
Asked about the prospect of her eldest daughter going to war, Sharon Gray didn't speak immediately. "It seems far away until it involves your own," she said finally. "There's a commitment my daughter made that I'm proud of. If it comes to her, she won't hesitate to serve."
Bobby Clark and his wife, Kristin, both Air Force sergeants, attended the service with their 4-month-old son. "We're concerned, knowing it could be us," Bobby Clark said.
As sunrise approached, the white marble of the amphitheater took on a pink hue. Hymns performed by the U.S. Navy Band and Sea Chanters Chorus resonated around the colonnade, which was decorated with dozens of large American flags. Military chaplains offered prayers on the situation in Yugoslavia.
"As we pray knowing darkness is still present in our world, we especially lift before you the pain of the Balkans," said Col. Edward Brogan, an Air Force chaplain. "We pray for our comrades in arms who serve in Kosovo, American and allied soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. Guide andprotect them as they offer their lives in the service of peace and freedom."