Arlington National Cemetery

This story first appeared in the

San Francisco Examiner

    AS WE NEARED the crest of the hill, our nervous conversation stopped
completely. We had expected to encounter some soldiers, but not nearly so many. More than 100 waited for us.   

    They stood beneath nearly-bare trees in a freezing November wind, motionless, facing our caravan. Bayonets gleamed atop their rifles. The soldiers froze in perfect rows, like living statues.

We stopped at the rendezvous point, awed despite our expectations, and stared at the assembled guard.

Next to the rifleman, a military band played a dirge into the cold wind. On the road in front of us a horse-drawn caisson bearing a flag-draped casket waited. The rest of the escort included a firing party, color guard, coffin bearers, horsemen, officers and the chaplain. All but the riders wore the slate blue ceremonial uniforms of United States Air Force Honor Guard.

They moved across the high Virginia hillsides of Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking the nation's capital, to send off one of their own in as grand manner as they could.

The full honors procession, which was just beginning, was already far more glorious than anyone in the family had expected, and yet it did not seem excessive.

Whenever the ignominy of death can be countered nothing it seems is too great.


Arlington National Cemetery is no more important and is no more sacred than any other place where we have sanctified the memories of those we loved and lost. Arlington is, instead, a symbolic place where we, as a national family can focus our gratitude and reverence upon the generations of Americans who risked their lives so that we can enjoy ours.

As such, the 612-acre cemetery is the place where we have enshrined our history amid our heroes. More than 213,000 veterans and dependents are buried at Arlington. They're in good company.

The list of those interred here reads like an index of a book on American history. It includes Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II; Arctic explorer Admiral Robert Peary; Challenger astronauts Dick Scobee and Michael Smith; and both John and Robert Kennedy. (Plots at Arlington are now restricted to those who have died in active military duty, those with 20 years of service, dependents, or holders of the nation’s highest military decorations.)

Approximately 4 million people visit Arlington National Cemetery every year. Most of them begin their tour at the newly-built visitor center. There they can embark on the hourly $2.50 “tourmobile” rides that stop at the cemetery’s prime attractions: the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Kennedy graves and the Arlington House mansion--formerly the residence of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

The mansion and the Tomb of the Unknowns occupy the crests of the cemetery’s two dominant and adjacent hills.

The Tomb of the Unknowns is guarded 24 hours every day by an elite honor guard of the 3rd U.S. Infantry. Each guard wears the formal U.S. Army dress blue uniform, is armed with a bayoneted M-1 rifle and walks with a special gait that keeps his head always at the same level -- gliding rather than bobbing.

His mission is a 21-step walk along a black rubber mat in front of the 50-ton white marble tomb. He walks at a rate of precisely 90 steps per minute. He stops at the end of each round, clicks his heels sharply, faces the tomb, pauses exactly 21-seconds (symbolic of a 21-gun salute), moves his rifle to the shoulder away from the tomb, turns again and proceeds another 21 steps.

His face is solemn. The fingers of his free hand are precisely curled against his thumb. He is stoic;  if he is cold, or if, for example, the cold air makes his nose run, he ignores it.

His concentration is so intense and his precision so great that there are only 21 one worn places on the rubber mat. Such single-minded purpose is characteristically military but it is also spiritual – along the lines of the meditative discipline of Zen masters. It is also unquestionably referential.

Each hour during the winter months, every half hour during the summer, and every two hours at night, the guard is changed in an elaborate and well-attended ritual.

After watching one of the guards and observing his uncanny dedication, one is sure that even when alone and unwatched, or in the dark of night in the dead of winter, the soldier will not err by even one second in his back and forth patrol.

On the adjacent ridge, just below the Lee mansion, are the graves of John and Robert Kennedy. John Kennedy’s grave site is actually a large elliptical plaza built to accommodate the large crowds that visited the site in the years immediately following his assassination. The grave is marked by a flame that burns continuously. A portion of his famous inaugural address is etched in a granite crescent facing the capital, including the well-known phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Robert Kennedy’s grave site is marked by a simple white cross. But like his brother’s, his words live after him, carved in stone. And like his brother’s words, Robert Kennedy’s echo the theme of service, generosity and duty to others.


    ARLINGTON National Cemetery is largely a product of the Civil War. On April 22, 1861, Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and offered his services to Virginia and the Confederacy. He left the mansion and the 1,100-acre estate, never to return.

A month later, Union forces, realizing the strategic position of the hillside overlooking Washington, captured the estate without a fight and made it their headquarters. The Union commander then decreed that as many men as possible should be buried on the grounds near the house, believing that would make the mansion uninhabitable for the Lees. By the end of the war, 16,000 headstones dotted the estate.

After the war, Arlington swelled with the ongoing burials of Civil War veterans. In 1868 a decree set aside May 30 as “Decoration Day” -- a time for the nation to honor deceased veterans.  In keeping with that order, the first memorial ceremonies were held at Arlington that year. The popularity of the observance increased until it was declared a national holiday in 1888, and the name was changed to “Memorial Day.”

This Memorial Day weekend, as it has for the past 42 years, the 3rd U.S. Infantry will place small U.S. flags in front of every grave.


    GIVEN enough time and enough strength to master the numerous hills, I would choose to tour Arlington on foot or by bicycle. Things move more slowly that way and thought becomes more deep.

The cemetery is a beautiful place. It has thick groves of oaks and elms. It is quiet and peaceful, except when 21-gun rifle- or canon-  funeral salutes break the stillness. It is a place that invites reflection and discovery.

During a slow walk, surrounded by the markers of thousands of soldiers from every U.S. war, one is drawn into their place. Indeed, one is surrounded by soldiers.

It is an eerie feeling at first, as if the soldiers were transformed into marble and were standing their ground like immovable, quiet sentinels.

As you read their names you wonder about them. “Wm. H. Chamberlain. Died August 21, 1861. Age 21 years, seven months.” He died early in the Civil War, apparently. It is his brother, one assumes, who lies next to him: “Elisha Chamberlain. Died in the service of his country. November 21, 1862. Age 25 years.”

Did they both fight on the same side? What grief the elder Chamberlains must have born.

Just a few yards away is a marker for Lieut. Vincent Joseph Garrido, who died to September 2, 1988 at the age of 28. Now he, and the Chamberlains – 125 years apart – are together in a very special battalion.

They share what is a recurring theme here: a belief in something, a love if you will, that was worth dying for.

Amid a national trend toward selfishness, a soldier’s devotion is an amazing thing to contemplate. Here one is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of testimonies to such devotion, spanning the last two centuries.


THE PROCESSION moved out slowly: first the band, then the men-at-arms, then the caisson, then the color guard. We followed them in our cars for a half-mile, passing along the way the Roughriders Monument, the Confederate Memorial, the mast of the USS Maine and the Astronaut Memorial.

As we neared the Tomb of the Unknowns, a tourist recorded our procession with his video camera. It did not seem intrusive, but instead of complementary.    

We turned left and proceeded to a glen almost directly between Arlington House and the Tomb of the Unknowns. There, in a stand of oak and elms, stood my father's marker.

In World War II he was a pilot who commanded a P-38 reconnaissance squadron. In peacetime he was a scientist and Deputy Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau. He served in the Air Force Reserves until the mid-1960s but he was never impressed by his own achievements. He never mentioned them – not even the fact that he had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

Not surprisingly, my fondest memories of him have little to do with rank or career. Instead I recall him sitting on the back porch on warm evenings, smoking a cigar, listening to songbirds, relishing the sweet Virginia springtime and engaging me in philosophy.  I recall also being assured by the knowledge that if necessary, he would sacrifice anything to keep his family well – a trait shared by parents and soldiers the world over.

He asked that no fuss be made over him after his death, no memorial service, and for seven years I complied. But having watched him die with the indignities of cancer and hearing of the rest of the family’s need for completion, I arranged for a full honors ceremony to correct what I considered to be nature's insult.


The Honor Guard positioned itself throughout the hills and headstones surrounding my father's marker. I watched six airmen unfold the ceremonial American flag and hold it over his memorial stone with the same solemn and ritualized Zen of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns. I heard the chaplain speaking but could not concentrate on his words. Instead I was transfixed by an eerie notion. The 100 soldiers in the contingent, standing motionless among the headstones, seemed like they could be the shadows of the dead soldiers, risen for a moment by their graves to welcome a comrade.

Some of the honor guards themselves may one day be interred here also. So perhaps by directing such dedicated reference to their predecessors, the honor guards also honor themselves in advance.

I broke away from that reverie, and in the harsh November wind, among the trees and fallen brown leaves at his headstone, read aloud two paragraphs from the wealth of letters my father wrote to me:

    My limited knowledge gives me enough equanimity to rejoice calmly at the violence of a storm, the songs and antics of the birds, the panorama of sunsets, mountains or waves, while the changing seasons let me know for certain the continuity of nature’s response to an Almighty undisclosed plan.

    . . . I rigged up a new bird feeder, although some birds are almost tame . . . Their singing is gradually fading and most likely will be gone with the fallen leaves. I’ll miss their songs.

The soldiers folded the flag into a neat triangle, and with the President’s gratitude, handed it to my mother. A bugler blew taps. Seven riflemen fired three times rapidly into the air -- the shots, no doubt, rousting whatever birds remained.

We will miss their songs.