It is a powerful place. Immense in size and emotion. When you see it for the first time, I’m betting you will think the same as me.
“I had no idea it would be like this.”
You will hear cries of childish joy and of gut-wrenching anguish … sometimes within a few seconds of one another. You will be amazed by the beauty of the rolling hills and old, stately trees. As you marvel over the gorgeous natural setting, you’ll be simultaneously fascinated with the geometric brilliance of the straight lines. Everywhere you look, you will see freshly cut grass … see youngsters playing … see tour guides speaking … see American flags … and you will see the white marble of the graves. The veterans. The sacrifice.
My God. Everywhere you look.
Row after row. Section after section. On and on it goes - 624 acres of graves. Men and women, young and old, of all ethnicities, religions, backgrounds.
Arlington National Cemetery. Our Nation’s cemetery.
I first had the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery in 2009. We lost my wife’s grandfather the previous year. “Papa George,” as he was affectionately known to all, served two years in the Army and re-enlisted in the Air Force upon its creation as a separate branch of the military in 1947. He served another 29 years before retiring to Montgomery.
Per his wishes, Lt. Col Holy was to be cremated and interred in the Arlington National Cemetery Columbarium. Soon after, Erica and I had the honor of driving her grandmother to the nation’s capitol to visit George and, ultimately, see her final resting place alongside her husband.
After dropping Erica and her grandmother off near the Columbarium complex, I parked several blocks away and began the trek back to visit George in his section. As I was walking back, I turned a corner around a Columbarium wall and found myself facing a central area set up for last rites. Roughly fifty yards ahead I saw men in suits or uniforms and women in dresses. I watched as small children fidgeted in their seats. Mourners were listening to a pastor as he prayed. I had happened upon the end of a military funeral.
It is a common occurrence at Arlington. Sometimes there are as many as 28 funerals a day, I am told. More often than not, these are for older veterans who, after their service to country, lived long, full lives and in death returned to our nation’s capitol for their eternal rest. These are somber occasions, of course, but they are often celebrations of good lives well-lived … rightly so.
This one was different.
Although I was an appropriate distance so I would not disturb the funeral party, I could still make out the faces of family members sitting in the front row. I quickly identified the spouse of the deceased and I knew. An awareness fell on me like a mountain of white marble. Our spouse was young … no more than 30. I understood our veteran was lost in battle. There were his parents. His brother. Those youngsters were his own.
I silently watched the presentation of the flag. I heard the three-round volley of the 21-gun salute. I heard a bugle and Taps. And I wept.
I cried in sadness for this family I never knew and I cried overwhelmed with love for my country and for those who defend her. I cried in appreciation for all I know who have served, and I cried with regret for not serving myself. I cried with pride for our past and I cried for fear of our future. America is a blessing on earth and that blessing has brought me such joy in my 48 years, joy I can never repay. So I cried.
As the funeral ended and the family began walking away, I slowly made my way back to my own family.
It is beyond my ability to describe the overwhelming emotional impact of this day at Arlington. All my life I thought I had a full understanding of the concept of “freedom is not free.” It wasn’t until then, like a sledgehammer to the heart, when I walked the sacred grounds, that I felt the full weight of that sentiment.
In less than a week, we will spend a day of remembrance to honor all those who served our precious nation in military service. God willing, I’ll share more in the coming days about Birmingham’s unique place in the history of Veteran’s Day. I hope you will join me Thursday afternoon downtown for our annual parade, our nation’s longest running.
I also hope, if you’ve never been, you will find your way to Arlington National Cemetery. I hope your heart is filled with a bottomless depth of appreciation for how special our nation truly is, and how many have sacrificed to make it so.
I hope you cry.
Matt Murphy is co-host of ‘Matt and Val’, heard in Alabama each weekday morning from 6-10 on Talk 99.5. Everywhere at Talk995.com His column appears every Tuesday and Friday in 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com