There are two places I will always need to visit when in Washington DC: Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Wall. Both are hauntingly beautiful, but neither are easy on the mind.
The route to Arlington is an easy one. From the Mall area, it’s a short two mile ride on the Metro to the parking lot that leads up onto the grassy hills where the cemetery begins. Established during the Civil War both to honor fallen Union soldiers and more practically because burial space was at a premium in the city. By the war’s end there were more than 16,000 grave sites located there.
The walk from the entrance into the cemetery to the point where the landscape begins to rise up into the hills is a sobering one. At first glance there is a grace to the way the simple, white markers flow in diagonal lines across the grass, but with a closer look there is the realization that each marks the grave of a fallen hero, the casualty of one of the many wars fought by these brave soldiers.
The markers continue across the lower slopes, on and on as far as the eye can see, thousands of them. Today, there are almost 300,000 buried here in Arlington, most of them soldiers but Supreme Court justices, astronauts, presidents and others – even Abner Doubleday, creator of the grand sport of baseball, but a Union general in the Civil War as well.
Not too far below the large white mansion that sits atop one of the hills are the grave sites of John Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline, and above them that of Bobby Kennedy, noted by a simple cross and plaque.
Though on the hilltops there are much more ornate and expansive memorials to others, but it is the simple headstones, many of them so weathered that none of the chiseled writing remains. Still, they honor both the glory and the sacrifice given to our nation by men who came from humble roots.
Perhaps what symbolizes this most is the Tomb of the Unknowns that includes soldiers from World Wars I & II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Watching the sentry pace back and forth in perpetual guard of the tomb, experiencing the ritual of the changing of the guard, and witnessing the placement of a wreath honoring those who have died to defend the country are things that simply cannot be described in words.
It is places such as Arlington where sense of the meaning of words such as placing soldiers in harm’s way or honor and duty hit home so powerfully. These are such patriots that are buried here.
One of my friends in high school was such a person. His name was Clinton Anderson, but everyone called him Andy. Like me, we grew tall in our later teens. I started 9th grade at a weight of 105 and a height that barely reached 5′ 2″. By my senior year I was 6′ 2″, having grown a foot in less than three years. Andy and I had a lot in common because he was short too and got picked on a lot, mostly by the “in crowd” guys who thought it was cool.
But then a funny thing happened. Andy got a bit taller than I did, but with a lot more weight. By the time he was a senior he went around to each of those who had hassled him in his earlier years and let them know he wouldn’t put up with it anymore. Some he challenged to a fight and most of them backed down, cowards when it came to it.
I lost track of Andy after I graduated and headed up to Santa Barbara for my college years. By the time I had graduated the Vietnam War was beginning to heat up, the draft was starting to creep into my consciousness, and I was starting to develop a sense that there was something wrong with this war though honesty I wasn’t quite sure what.
I never did serve and wasn’t ever tempted to enlist. On the other hand, I wasn’t tempted to burn my draft card in protest either; I just cut it up and threw it away. When I moved the next time I conveniently chose not to send a change of address to the Draft Board, more or less saying if you want me, come and get me. They never did.
For whatever reason, Andy chose to join the Army in 1966, went to Boot Camp, got basic training and was in Vietnam by year’s end. He didn’t make it to the end of the next.
Ironically, he died on Independence Day. I’m not sure where he is buried, perhaps in our home town of El Segundo, but I do know his name is one of 58,178 etched on the long polished granite surfaces of the Vietnam Wall.
Heroes such as Andy are what make visiting the Wall so difficult. Walking along it you’ll see flowers, people with tears streaming freely, many hands rubbing a particular name with pencil and paper so they might take that part of the Wall home with them.
The statistics of the Vietnam War are astounding: the youngest killed in action was 15. Dan Bullock lied to the recruiters so he could enlist and serve his country. At least 5 men killed in Vietnam were 16 years old and at least 12 were 17 years old. More than 25,000 were 20 years old or younger when they died; 17,000 of those killed were married. Tragically, 997 of those who died did so on their first day in Vietnam.
There are many who still believe the sacrifice was not worth the cost. Honor and duty served by placing too many of the country’s best in harms way. It is 33 years since the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. I wonder what memorials will be in place and what value will be attributed to our current war 33 years from now?