By Steven M. Robinson
The streets around it do not betray what you are about to experience. The people who direct traffic are just that: men and women who tell people where they're supposed to go and where they're not supposed to go.
Upon entering the gates, parking your car, and walking into the Administration Building, you still don't see indications of the true nature of this place. No, it's only when you make your way down its tree-lined streets, trailing slowly behind the funeral coach, that you begin to see some of what makes this place so special.
You notice the names that grace the street signs: names like Eisenhower and Halsey. You can't escape the enormity of the simple white grave markers that file into the distance, the gardens of stone. The falling leaves of gold and red ride the wind across the fields of green and past the smaller signs, which read simply: “Silence and Respect.”
There are soldiers, in their dress uniforms, marching along the streets. As you wonder who they are or what they might be doing, you notice that their marching ceases. As the hearse that you follow slowly passes this group of anonymous soldiers, they stop, turn to face it and snap a salute, which they hold until the fallen one passes. Then they turn and resume their lives, their marching.
This happens again and again. No living soldier on this hallowed ground bursting with so many fallen soldiers, allows a newly fallen one to pass without the show of proper respect. One wonders if this is a diversion from their other duties, or if this is their duty, and their marching simply a diversion.
As the procession slows, your attention is drawn to a group of eight soldiers standing some thirty yards away. Seven of these bear arms, one holds a sword. Another twenty yards from this group is a solitary soldier, right arm fixed in salute, a bugle in his left hand.
The cortege reaches its destination. It is met by another group of soldiers, these standing silently beneath a large oak tree, its golden leaves bursting forth in a canopy of protection. There are seven soldiers, in their dress black pants and brilliant blue jackets with polished brass buttons and medals adorning each chest. Another soldier accompanies them, this one older, more distinguished, in the same uniform but with more medals and two shiny silver crosses on his lapels.
The rear door of the funeral coach is opened to reveal a flag-draped coffin. Silently, except for the tap of their polished shoes on the pavement, the group of seven makes its way to their fallen comrade. Mechanically, yet reverently, six of them retrieve the coffin from its temporary home in three precise movements. You sense that they see this as a rescue of sorts. They recognize this as a fallen comrade who is not yet at rest, and will not be so until they make it so.
With the fallen soldier safely in hand, the six escorts slowly march toward the hallowed ground that has been prepared to receive this one. When the flag-draped carrier is placed above its final resting-place, the six remove the flag and hold it above, tightly in their white-gloved hands, while the seventh, too, stands near. They all stand guard, at alert attention, over this grave as if it holds their commander.
Who are these men-boys really? They are so young, so unfamiliar, and yet they seem so affected by their task, as if they are fortunate to have the duty of this honor. History tells us they are members of The Third United States Infantry Regiment, the famed “Old Guard,” one of the oldest and most respected Infantry Regiments in the United States Army. Perhaps they are chosen for their ability to respect, or more likely, their solemnity is earned through their duty.
The older soldier with the crosses on his lapel, the chaplain, steps forward and says words chosen to comfort. He speaks from the heart, not from notes. He sees it as his duty, as his responsibility to speak of the fallen one as someone he knew. He doesn't pretend that he did, he simply knows their character because of those who sit before him and because of the right they've earned to be in this sacred place.
After a few words, the soldier in the distance who holds the silver sword directs his charges to honor the fallen one with the ultimate military salute. On his command the remaining seven present their arms and each fires simultaneously. This action is repeated twice, comprising a salute of twenty-one guns, though not considered an official twenty-one gun salute, this reserved for fallen Commanders-in Chief.
This practice of firing volleys over the grave originated on the battlefields of yesterday. Fighting would cease while each army cleared away its fallen. After the dead had been removed and cared for, each army would fire three volleys to signal that the fighting could resume-an odd sort of respect on a field of conflict. On this hallowed ground, it strikes you that these volleys symbolize the opposite: this gunfire signals that the dead is again cared for but, for them, the end of all fighting.
As quickly as the sound of gunfire came, it retreats, now replaced with the mournful strains of that most familiar of military melodies, “Taps.”
“Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
As silence again fills the chilly air, the six who watch over the grave solemnly, without even blinking, barely breathing, snap the flag taut while reverently folding it into the triangle of blue and white stars. This takes a few minutes, not because they are unfamiliar with the process, but because they intimately know not only the how of what they are doing but also with the why. This flag represents the nation, as does any other American flag, but this one has graced the coffin of a fallen hero, and just as significant as that is to the defense of the country, it's even more important for the family member to whom it will be presented. To him or her, the flag not only graced the coffin of a fallen hero, it graced the coffin of a fallen loved one.
The flag is presented by one of the six soldiers to the seventh who has stood watch on their service. He then presents it to the chaplain, who has the honor and the duty to present the flag to the fallen one's next-of-kin. “This flag is presented on behalf of the President of the United States, and a grateful nation, as a token of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.”
He then presents the Lady of Arlington, one of about sixty volunteers who attend every funeral that occurs in this sacred place. No one worthy of this place should be buried alone. That was the genesis of Arlington's Ladies. This Lady, escorted by yet another member of the Old Guard, represents the leadership of the branch of service in which the fallen one served. She speaks a few words of comfort to the family and then presents a letter of appreciation and condolence.
As the service ends, the fallen one having found their final resting-place, the family returns to their cars. As they depart they are honored with one more long, slow salute from each of the soldiers, all of whom now line the street. The family will attempt to return to life, these fine members of America's Old Guard will return to their duty of honoring America's fallen. Paths will likely never cross again, but that's alright. We're better for knowing that they were there for us, that they'll be there for others.
The history of the cemetery tells us that “since 1864, when the first coffin was interred, more than 200,000 burials have taken place in the more than 600 acres of land devoted to America's honored dead. Privates and generals, astronauts and presidents, civilians with military service or relationships are all ranked in row upon row in the manicured lawns. By the year 2021 the cemetery will be full and the burial ground will be designated a national shrine.”
This fine line of legalese will change nothing for the families of those whose loved ones rest here. What began as hallowed ground is now made even more so by the presence of their mothers, their fathers, their sons and daughters.
“Then good night, peaceful night,
Till the light of the dawn shineth bright,
God is near, do not fear — Friend, good night.”
I wanted to share with you the fact that we buried my Mother, Corporal Lillie M. Bonsall, Women's Army Corps, yesterday at Arlington. She now rests in the Hallowed Ground with Daddy. I thank you again for this web site and for the story about my Father. I have a good friend, Steve Robinson, who, after two trips to Arlington with my Family wrote the following essay. Steve is an events manager in Washington, D.C. with his own company called Logicom. He is in fact, in charge of all the Republican Party events as well as others. Anyhow, he is a gifted writer. I am sharing this with you in the event that you can use it on the web page. It was a huge Blessing to me!
God Bless you Michael, and your Family, Joe Bonsall
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard