A Sacrifice Beyond Our Knowing

By Courtland Milloy
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Sunday, November 14, 2004

The marble headstones at Arlington National Cemetery cascade down gently sloping hillsides and stretch out like guideposts to eternity. There are hundreds of thousands of stone markers, each one bearing a name, rank, branch of service and a home state — along with dates of birth and death.

Visitors walked solemnly through the cemetery Friday, up Roosevelt Drive, beyond the John F. Kennedy memorial, to a 50-ton Colorado marble tomb that carries no name or rank, only these words: “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.”

An Army sentinel paced in the cold rain, looking miraculously crisp as he watched over the Tomb of the Unknowns. When he clicked the heels of his wet shoes, they crackled like a distant rifle shot.

“You hear about ceremonies like this, but we don't get to see it enough,” said Clay Revis, who was visiting from Cincinnati. “This is where our patriots are kept, and everybody should feel real proud.”

A member of the elite Tomb Guard who identified himself as Private First Class Brown called the audience to attention. The ceremonial changing of the guard was about to begin. Veterans stood and saluted. Others placed hands over their hearts.

“When I think of the unknown soldier, I think of the families who have lost loved ones to war and don't know what happened,” said Bruce Torrence, who, with his wife, Chris, had come from Mammoth Lakes, Calif. “I feel the sadness of families trying to get answers to questions about what happened.”

“And why,” Chris Torrence added. “To me, the tomb is a symbol of all the young boys who gave everything. They must have been so scared, so frightened, of the unknown as much as anything, and then to be interred as an unknown.”

In March 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in the plaza of the Memorial Amphitheater. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill authorizing the symbolic burial of unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War.

The remains of the Vietnam Unknown were exhumed from the memorial in May 1998 and identified through DNA testing as those of an Air Force pilot who had been shot down in Vietnam in 1972. The crypt that contained the remains is still vacant.

Continued advancements in DNA testing and record keeping virtually assure that the name of every U.S. casualty in, say, the war in Iraq will be known. But just knowing the name does not make the soldier known.

Even in an age of saturation news coverage, most of the honored dead remain obscure to most of us. Their stories are not widely told unless they are somehow regarded as special: a professional football player who gave up sports for war; a pair of close friends who joined the Marines together, went to Iraq together and were killed there, together.

That is probably just fine with the government, which tries to keep returning, flag-draped coffins under wraps, lest American morale suffer. Meanwhile, polls suggest that Americans have a high tolerance for loss of life on the battlefield — as long as their own children are not in harm's way.

Students from the West Side Montessori Center in Toledo came to place a wreath at the tomb. Some of them wished they could talk to an Unknown Soldier, ask questions and get answers that have been sealed inside the stone.

“I would want to know: ‘Did you really want to go?' ” said Katie Miller, 13, an eighth-grader.

“I'd ask: ‘What was it like?' ” said Libby Wentz, also an eighth-grader. “What emotions were running through your head?”

Katie and Libby were two of the four students designated to lay the wreath. The others were Al Sigman, 14, and Alex Lui, 13.

“Since the first Unknown Soldier was from World War I, I'd ask him what was he fighting for,” Al said. “And I'd want to know if America today was how he wanted to see it.”

Alex said, “I'd ask, ‘How does it feel to be a hero?' ”

After they laid the wreath, a bugler offered as good a response as any of them were likely to hear. He played taps.

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