Re­flec­tions on our fallen men and women

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

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.

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