A year ago this past Thursday, I was able to visit Arlington National Cemetery on “Flags In Day” – the Thursday prior to Memorial Day, when members of The Old Guard, our Army’s ceremonial unit since 1784, plant flags at each of the over 200,000 graves by placing the toe of their boot against the headstone and planting the flag at the heel, thus ensuring that every flag in each row line up perfectly.
From the eternal flame of President Kennedy to the hallowed Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to heavyweight champ Joe Louis, to Supreme Court Justices, to a private, seaman, or airman, every headstone gets a flag on Flags In Day.
No one is common at Arlington.
Tour guides and markers instruct that Arlington was passed down through the Custis family of Virginia to Mary Custis and her husband, Robert E. Lee, she a descendant of Martha Washington. The property once was an homage to our first President and, as written in his book by former Old Guard member Senator Tom Cotton, is now our country’s “most sacred shrine.”
Confiscated from the Custis/Lee family when the Union ran out of burial space during the Civil War, the graves now include soldiers from both sides of that war, and from every war since.
Senator Cotton writes: “For the fallen and their families, each funeral is unique . . . As Old Guard soldiers, we viewed the funerals (up to 20 in one day) through their eyes as we trained, prepared our uniforms, and performed the rituals of Arlington.”
On that day last year, as my colleagues and our guests walked from the mansion toward the Tomb of the Unknown, we began to hear hoofbeats, first away, and then coming closer. And right before our eyes was a caisson carrying the body of a fallen American hero. Standing in reverence, and awe, as the procession passed, I was touched by the gravity of the moment.
Later, while watching the historic changing of the guard at the Tomb, we heard Taps playing far in the distance, as both ceremonies came to an end.
Senator Cotton concludes: “[T]he military remains our nation’s most respected institution, and the fields of Arlington are one place where we can set aside our differences . . . Their stories of heroism, of sacrifice, of patriotism, remind us of what is best in ourselves, and they teach our children what is best in America.”
Photo from Shutterstock.