Reflections on our fallen men and women
The first time I visited Arlington National Cemetery, I was a newly commissioned 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. It was a spring day in 1995, and a few of my fellow officers and I took some time on a Saturday to escape the confines of Quantico Marine Corps Base and make our way to the renowned cemetery in Arlington, Va., to pay our respects to those who had gone before us, many of whom had paid the ultimate sacrifice in battle for the United States’ continued independence and liberty as a nation. We were eager young officers excited to start our new profession, with a landscape of possibilities stretched out ahead of us.
I had not been to our nation’s capital prior to this visit, and I was dutifully captivated by the monuments, the Capitol Building, and especially by the serene dignity of the national cemetery. The expansive, sloped green fields seemed to me a fitting, even elegant, testament to our men and women of arms. I appreciated all these aspects, however, from a position of detached repose. At the time, I did not truly expect to see combat during my time as a Marine. The Cold War was over. There were no impending conflicts on the horizon. Even in our initial training at Quantico, the instructors emphasized the future likelihood of peacekeeping missions and military operations other than war. I did not conceive that I would ever have a personal connection to the hallowed grounds which had so impressed me.
Last year, I visited the cemetery for a second time, with 20 years of active service in the Marine Corps behind me since my first visit. Nearly 12 of those years were spent overseas at military bases, diplomatic posts, disaster relief, peacekeeping operations, or in combat. Now, I no longer experience a feeling of detachment when I visit the cemetery or even see the grounds from a distance. The names carved in stone are not simply history to me anymore. Many of the names are those of my fellow Marines and sailors. Some of them I knew well and I know how very much poorer the world is for their absence. I knew of course, that death was a distinct possibility for those of us in harm’s way, or “downrange” in today’s lexicon, but I did not truly conceive, as I served alongside those colorful and vibrant characters who answer the nation’s call to arms, that I would soon see their names etched into the cold stone of the grave markers, which now seemed to me a paltry and insufficient epitaph to their larger-than-life personalities.
During that second visit, as I beheld the names of friends and colleagues etched on tombstones in section 60 of the cemetery, which has become known as “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 and fellow service men and women were there to grieve and salute a young soldier together. There appeared to be parents and a young bride, or maybe girlfriend or fiancé, at the front of the crowd gathered round the grave. They sang a hymn as I maintained a respectful distance. For a few minutes, there were tears and laughter as several of those present spoke of their memories of the departed. Then soon a deep silence prevailed as the gathering broke apart and most of them ambled away — except for three: presumably the parents and the young bride, who stood embraced together, silent and unmoving. They were still there as I walked back to the entrance.
The scene reminded me of the services I have attended too often over recent years to mark the passing of my brother and sister warriors who now lay among the fallen. Suddenly, I found myself deeply moved by the events of that afternoon and so I sat by the stone wall that bounds the graveyard and quickly scribbled a few stanzas that sprang from the rush of the moment. I offer these lines now as a testament to our remembrance of the fallen as we observe Memorial Day: Remembrance 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 a hallowed hall. You rose away with the brave beside you; You rose away to the bugle’s call. As the hymns ring clear through the twilight grey, Let us hold them dear ‘til we rise away. 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 for the angel’s 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.
Lt. Col. Shaun FitzPatrick, USMC, Indian Head The writer is a veteran of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and currently serves as the executive officer of the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force in Indian Head.