Arlington gravesite visit produces awe, sadness

Acouple of weeks ago, fellow reporter Aimee Juarez and I visited a place every American should see.

We went to Arlington National Cemetery while we were in the nation’s capital for a journalism conference.

We had both been there before. But this time it was different. We had a name to look up. In some distant sense, we knew someone who was buried there.

After a short cab ride over the bridge to Virginia, we went to the cemetery’s visitor’s center, and at a computer kiosk entered the name Justin B. Schmidt and printed out a map to the slain Bradenton soldier’s grave.

It was four months ago that I first heard that name. Justin was a decorated soldier serving in Iraq when he was killed in April.

Justin, 23, died in Baghdad on April 29, 2004, along with eight other U.S. soldiers.

According to Pentagon reports, the soldiers were conducting a sweep in search of improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs. A vehicle approached the Army unit, and the driver detonated a bomb, according to the Department of Defense. All the soldiers who died were assigned to the Army’s 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Armored Division, based in Baumholder, Germany.

Aimee and I walked far past the grand gates and down the roads that wind through fields filled with neat rows of mostly white tombstones. We counted gravesites, passing the names of fallen heroes from past and present wars.

When we reached Justin’s tombstone, I felt a stinging in my heart. I had never known Justin, but seeing his name and standing by his final resting place brought back the heartache I had witnessed his family endure not so long ago.

Justin’s grave is among the last row where Iraq and Afghanistan war troops are buried. It faces a vast and untouched grassy field that will no doubt soon be filled as more and more troops die doing battle to win the war on terror.

To the left of Justin’s grave lies Marvin Ross Sprayberry III, a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant who would have turned 25 years old last week. He died in Iraq just like Justin. To the right is Bruce E. Price, born September 11, 1966, and who died May 15, 2004, the day after Justin was buried. Bruce died in Afghanistan.

Arlington National Cemetery stretches over more than 200 acres and more than 260,000 people – mostly military – are buried there. More than 5,400 burials are conducted there annually. It also is home to the Tomb of the Unknowns, a massive 79-ton tribute to three unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The tomb is guarded by U.S. Army soldiers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A Vietnam War soldier who was buried there was identified in 1998 and reinterred in his hometown.

I talked to Schmidt’s grandmother, Jan, yesterday, and she thanked me for visiting Justin’s grave. I told her I was honored to pay my respects to him personally. We talked about Arlington and how it is such a sad, yet lovely and peaceful place.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “You just look around and you’re in awe.”

Whether you knew someone buried at Arlington or you simply go to learn about our nation’s history of military sacrifice, make the trip if you’re in Washington, D.C.

It makes you truly see and appreciate how thousands have given their lives so that we may enjoy our freedom.

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