The first time I visited Arlington National Cemetery in 1995, I was a 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Marine Corps. I went to pay respects to those who had gone before me, many of who paid the ultimate price in battle for the United States’ continued independence and liberty as a nation. I thought then that the expansive, sloped green fields seemed a fitting, even elegant, testament to our departed men and women of arms.
At the time, though, I felt a sense of detachment. I didn’t truly expect to see combat during my time in the Corps. The Cold War was over. There were no impending conflicts on the horizon. Even our instructors at Quantico emphasized the likelihood of peacekeeping missions and military operations other than war. I didn’t realize that I would soon have a personal connection to those hallowed grounds.
After more than two decades of service, mostly overseas at military bases, embassies, disaster relief missions, peacekeeping operations, or in combat, I visited the cemetery for a second time. I felt detached no longer. The names carved in stone weren’t simply history to me anymore. They were names of fellow Marines and sailors. I knew many of them well and I know how very much poorer the world is for their absence. We who answer the nation’s call to arms know that death is a distinct possibility, but to see the names of those colorful and vibrant characters with whom I served etched into the cold stone of the grave markers now seemed to me a paltry and insufficient epitaph to their larger-than-life personalities.
During that second visit, as I walked through section 60 of the cemetery, now called “the saddest acre in America,” there was a service being held a few rows away for a young casualty of the campaign in Afghanistan. Family and friends were there to grieve and salute a young soldier together, with the parents and young wife at the front of the crowd. As I maintained a respectful distance they spoke of their memories of the departed and sang a hymn. Soon silence prevailed as the gathering ambled away — except for three — the parents and the young bride. They stood embraced together, silent and unmoving. They were still there as I walked back to the entrance, thinking how the scene reminded me of the services I’ve attended too often over recent years to mark the passing of a fallen brother or sister. Stirred by the moment, I sat next to the stone wall and penned these verses, which I offer now in remembrance of our fallen men and women:
We laid you down in the saddest acre;
We laid you down in the burning ground.
We laid you down to a song of ashes;
We laid you down and the world turned round.
You rose away with our tears behind you;
You rose away to the bugle’s call.
You rose away with the brave beside you;
You rose away to a hallowed hall.
We tarried there where the deep grass claimed you;
We tarried there like an orphan’s prayer.
We tarried there with our hearts afire;
We tarried there where the angels share.
We’ll never rest while the world forgets you;
We’ll never rest when the sorrows weigh.
We’ll stand up, proud, as the rifles echo;
We’ll never rest ‘til we rise away.