PAT TAYLOR: Hallowed Ground: A Visit to Arlington Always Brings Tears
As she looked across the grounds, tears gleamed on her cheeks.
Her face wore a look of half joy and half sorrow. Her voice floated lightly on the air as she talked to her father, evidence of the emptiness she still feels, 14 years later. I gave her some space, as I always do with fellow visitors at Arlington National Cemetery. A daughter just needs her daddy sometimes.
I quietly stroll among gravestones spreading out as far as the eye can see. There are hundreds of thousands of them. This time, each has a small American flag in front of the stone. The scene is almost incomprehensible, even after so many visits.
I reflect on the collective service those buried represent. It's the most humbling feeling I ever have, standing among these silent warriors. I choke back a wave of emotion, but tears come anyway. It's always the same here.
We were on the last leg of a baseball trip, starting in Knoxville, chasing our son's college team through his senior season. As we headed up I-81 from Tennessee toward Philadelphia, Lani and I stopped at the Antietam Battlefield, near Sharpsburg, Md. On these fields, the bloodiest single day in the Civil War unfolded, almost by accident, and became one of the most murderous killing fields in American history. In all, 23,000 U.S. and Confederate soldiers were killed and wounded on this one sad day.
Walking through one of the most intense areas of fighting, The Bloody Lane, weighs on a person. You feel like you are trespassing. This is hallowed ground, baptized by mortal blood. Americans locked together at point-blank range and did not flinch, regardless of the savagery surrounding them. Pictures from the time show bodies stacked three and four deep where I stand. At the spot where the Tar Heel boys were ravaged, I feel goose bumps standing up in waves.
You can still sense the agony, just as at Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Appomattox Court House. These are places unlike anywhere else. You imagine the extraordinary sacrifices made by ordinary men for their causes, Union and Confederate. They gave their lives for what they believed in. They suffered hardships we can't even imagine. At home, their loved ones suffered greatly, as military families always do.
History Hung in Balance
We pushed on to Philadelphia the next day, passing Gettysburg, and I was reminded of the two days I spent there a couple of years ago. If you don't believe history matters, learn how close that battle was and imagine how different things might be had General Lee succeeded in invading the North and forced the Union army into a peace agreement because of political pressure. The whole world would be a completely different place.
Once in Philly, you are reminded at every turn of the sacrifices of an earlier generation, four score and six years before Antietam.
The Revolutionary War was so nearly lost on so many occasions that this country never should have happened. But it did, because of the sacrifices of a group of men dedicated to the kind of freedom they sought to establish. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the host of founding fathers deserve better than they are getting these days in education. To the modern idealist, they aren't politically correct anymore.
Stand in front of Independence Hall with any idea of what happened there, or walk the grounds of Valley Forge with any idea of the hardships the American army suffered; gaze upon the Liberty Bell and fathom what it represents, and you appreciate more fully the sacrifices made through generations to provide the freedoms we enjoy to this day.
They certainly didn't come free. They never will. The risk to Washington and his friends was public hanging, were they caught. They were, after all, traitors to the crown.
A Needed Reminder
Lani and I planned to go by Arlington Cemetery on the way home from Philadelphia. She needs to visit her dad once in a while. And I need a reminder that what makes this nation great is a willingness to sacrifice for the common good. I sometimes lose that sense of wonder.
Bill O'Brien's stone has the briefest bio sketch of his 42-year military career: Chief Warrant Officer 4; World War II; Korea; Vietnam; Purple Heart; born Oct. 7, 1925, died March 16, 1994. He was so eager to volunteer for the Navy that he lied about his age and joined at 16. The false age was originally inscribed on his tombstone, since corrected. The stone isn't nearly large enough for all his medals, campaigns and honors as a Master Pilot and Master Diver in both the Navy and Army.
Walking among the headstones near where William G. O'Brien is buried, I read other headstones. I feel like I know Obie's neighbors now. A few feet away is Capt. William M. O'Brien, also a multiple war veteran. His bio is equally brief.
They are all too brief, but when you read them en masse, they tell a story. Almost all are men. Each has a name, rank and branch of service, the wars served in, and sometimes a brief comment like "Purple Heart," "Order of Merit," "Bronze Star," "Silver Star" and others. There is one Medal of Honor winner nearby. A religious symbol at the top of the stone reveals their professed faith. On the backs of some markers are etched the names of wives who are buried there, but they are surprisingly few in number.
All of the graves are marked with a small, simple engraved white marble marker. From the ultimate world of rank and order, the stones are the ultimate statement in democracy in death, of the value of all levels of wartime service. The sheer number of markers speaks to the giving of so many. It is so dignified that I am struck dumb, overcome, rejoicing in the gift of so many.
Dozens of headstones where I stroll say: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Across this section of relatively recent graves there must be thousands of these "lifers" now at rest. It's another statement of how dedicated the greatest generation was to our way of life.
My thoughts drift to my own father and the sacrifices he made for his country. He was not a war hero like my wife's father. Few men are. But Dad picked up tuberculosis in the Army and lost a lung and his chosen career in radio as a result of his service.
Every day for 50 years, he struggled for a clear breath, yet I never once heard him utter a word of regret that he had made that sacrifice. That makes him a hero in my book. There are tens of thousands of similar stories lying here. Greatest Generation, indeed.
'Bivouac of the Dead'
I will not give up the liberties they fought to preserve, and I am renewed in my determination to speak out more often, to be more active and vocal. We have become too passive as a nation, too willing to be led silently by people who are taking us away from our great democratic experiment for personal power or gain. We have become too willing to trade freedom for security.
Behind what was apparently the original gate into the Arlington Cemetery, there is a hill where the first Union soldiers were buried. On this gate are inscribed the following lines: "Here rest 15,585 of the 315,555 citizens who died in defense of our country from 1861-1865."
Below that are lines from a poem of the time:
On fame's eternal camping ground
Their silent tents we spread,
And glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
Rest on, embalmed and sainted Dead.
Dear as the blood ye gave,
No impious footsteps here shall tread,
The heritage of your grave.
When I was of military age, the Vietnam War was in full operation. I was 1-A draft status the year the draft lottery started and, luckily, got a high number and never got called to the military. But I married into a military family and now understand something about the price every family in the military must pay to provide us with freedom.
The ultimate sacrifice is still being made, as evidenced by the 4,000 armed forces members we've lost in Iraq. The very least we, as Americans, should do is to hold our leaders accountable when they ask for that ultimate sacrifice and a place among the bivouac of dead. But whether you agree with the way we've handled the current war or not, it does not lessen that sacrifice of the citizen soldiers who follow orders and do their duty, just as American soldiers always have.
As another Independence Day nears, I am reminded yet again just how great that sacrifice is.
Pat Taylor is advertising director of The Pilot.
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