The clanking metro train came to a halt. "Now arriving at Arlington National Cemetery," the prerecorded voice announced over the intercom. As my family and I exited the train, a sweeping, cold wind rushed across our faces, a usual welcome from all the underground stations in D.C. I looked at the ceiling of the station curving to meet the dark grey walls. One moment, I was viewing beautiful Greek architecture at the national mall; the next, I was in an enclosing chasm of ugly stone. The sound of the screeching track blared in my ears.
The exit to the surface level was a huge escalator that climbed to the top for air. When we reached the top, I braced myself for the thoughts and emotions that were about to swim inside me. I had never been to Arlington before that day. The names and faces of family and friends who were in the military rested in my mind—not many years older than my age of 17 when they enlisted. I was ready to recognize their sacrifice through this place.
After sauntering through security, we walked through the welcome center and headed for the cemetery. It wasn't too long until we reached the rows upon rows of gravestones, each marking the courage and bravery of that person. As we trudged up a slight hill, I read the names of the gravestones.
When we hear about how many people died in a war, we only think about the number, and hardly about the individual lives of each person. When I read the names, it would sometimes say that they were a father and husband, what branch of the military they were part of, and the year they were born and the year they passed. This information, even if it seems so little, individualizes the men buried there. Every human is an individual. I thought of my aunt's dad who fought in the Korean War and my great grandfather who was a glider pilot for the Royal Air Force during WW2. The people buried here had a life and family like my relatives.
Signs were strewn across path reading, "Please be quiet. Show respect."And everyone was quiet. In fact, it was the quietest place in D.C. Everything was still. The trees slowly swayed in the wind like they too were turning to view the graves. The only thing I could hear were respectful whispers and singing birds.
I spotted a sign pointing to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The path was downhill with uneven steps. The trees cast shadows over the trail and graves, giving shade to the fallen heroes and their visitors. As we descended, a large group of people walked in front of us, but all we could hear were the footsteps upon the stone. The silence was carried everywhere we went.
This silence left room in my mind for my great grandfather. What was going through his mind in the early morning hours of D-day? Was everyone silent just like this place when they boarded the glider plane? As I looked at the gravestones, I thought of his burial site in France where his glider crashed that day so long ago. His sacrifice weighed heavy on my mind.
When we finally reached the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we searched for a place to sit so we could watch the changing of the guard. We joined a crowd of solemn people sitting on the steps facing the tomb and the focused guard. Just over the trees and across the Potomac River, I could see the Washington Monument and the Capitol building. The afternoon sun animated the structures.
At that moment, the next guard and a sergeant walked out with their posture straight up. Everyone sitting rose up in unison. The sergeant ordered us to remain quiet and show respect during the ceremony.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, what you are about to witness is the changing of the guard to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," he began triumphantly. After his brief speech, he walked over to the two guards and started the change. Multiple orders later, the new guard took his place and carried the symbolism and responsibility every previous guard held.
These guards deeply understood their role better than any of us in the audience. Brown stains on the stone displayed where and how long these men had guarded the tomb. The tomb of a man that was alive before them, of a man that they didn't personally know, and of a man of whom no one knows the name or story. But the man in that tomb sacrificed everything for the values of freedom and liberty.
Sitting there watching the ceremony, I realized that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier represents every unknown soldier buried somewhere. That even though we don't know the identity of the soldier, he still deserves the praise and respect the identified soldiers get. Giving this one unknown soldier a sacred tomb honors and individualizes people we can't identify who were killed or missing in action. That is why the tomb is guarded 24/7 through hurricanes and blizzards— to honor every man who laid down their lives for the freedom of others.
Continuing back to the welcome center, I heard those respectful whispers once again. The thought of my family members who served came back to me. What stories did they have about their time in the military? My aunt recently took her father to the Korean War Memorial. I imagined his reaction when seeing it, the memories flying through his head.
We went back down the tall escalator to get to our metro train. As we waited for a few minutes, the dirty stone, the loud sounds, and the uneasy smells of the metro station didn't cross my mind. All I could think about were the thousands of men and women's selfless actions for the principles of freedom and liberty and my family members' sacrifice for those principles.
If there is one word to describe Arlington National Cemetery, it is sobering. We should sacrifice the time to visit these graves because they sacrificed their lives so we can have that time.