Although I have had the privilege of visiting Arlington National Cemetery several times, I always feel the sadness of these sacred places when I walk through the imposing iron gates.
As far as the eye can see, rows and rows of small tombstones stand at attention across the landscape of rolling hills. I encourage every American to seek an opportunity to view this 1100 acre national shrine to those who served and died in the cause of freedom. It is located in Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
More than 260,000 men and women are buried in Arlington – some famous like Presidents John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft, five-star generals like Omar Bradley, and countless other soldiers, including thousands unnamed.
On Memorial Day weekend, a small American flag is placed in the grass in front of each headstone as a red, white, and blue salute to each individual resting there. According to tourist guides, an average of 27 funerals are held each working day – “final farewells to fallen heroes on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as veterans of World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam and of the Cold War and to their family members.”
A visit to Arlington wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The marble monument stands on the crest of a hill next to the memorial amphitheater. This sacred site was dedicated on Armistice Day, November 11, 1921, when the first ‘Unknown Soldier’, a WWI casualty, was buried.
Later, in 1931, a 50 ton piece of marble was carved into the cornerstone we see today. On its front, three figures are carved representing peace, victory and bravery, as well as the phrase “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God”.
In 1958, an unknown soldier from the Korean War and World War II was buried there. The body of a soldier killed in Vietnam was buried in a ceremony in 1984; however, due to advances in medical research, the body was identified by DNA and returned to his family. The Vietnam War Unknown crypt remains empty.
Since 1948, an honor guard from the 3rd US Infantry has maintained a 24-hour vigil with the utmost precision and respect. The lone soldier on duty walks back and forth on a 63-foot black carpet in front of the grave. He takes 21 steps to the mat, turns and faces the grave for 21 seconds, which is the highest military honor – a 21-gun salute.
The public can watch this sentry and the changing of the guard ceremony, which takes place every half hour or hour, depending on the time of year – whatever the weather. The ceremony reminds me of Americans of all generations who have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our freedom.
A visit to Arlington brings to mind the words of Jesus: “There is no greater man than this, let a man lay down his life” (John 15:13 KJV). And it always reminds me of Jesus’ Ultimate Sacrifice to forever free mankind from sin.
— Jan White is the author of “Everyday Faith for Daily Life.”