I’d been to Arlington Cemetery dozens of times before. My first visit was during my senior year of high school, part of an educational trip. Later in college, a classmate showed us the town during spring break. I remember nothing from those visits but the endless walking. After graduation during my early days in DC, I visited Arlington like any other tourist, as I got to know the city that would become my home.
I didn’t understand back then. The rows and rows of white headstones, perfectly aligned like the fallen soldiers they represented, were overwhelming in their magnitude. So much so that their sheer volume prevented any sort of true comprehension of the sacrifices they represented.
I finally began to grasp the meaning of Arlington Cemetery in 2007, when I visited with a young Marine who I would later marry. By 2007, the nation was knee deep in two wars and the infamous Lot 60 had begun to fill with the casualties of my generation’s defining conflict. We visited the grave of LCpl Taylor Praszynski, or Ski as his friends called him. I heard the story of Ski and Mahdi, another young Marine, who were lost to a mortar explosion the same day that my now-ex managed to live. My ex, a battle hardened infantry Marine, teared as he told the story of Ski dying on the spot and Mahdi dying in his arms on the medevac out. I didn’t know Ski or Mahdi, but I now knew someone who knew someone at Arlington. That started to make it real.
Years later, I would go back for the annual Wreaths Across America event, in which hundreds of volunteers would place a Christmas wreath at each headstone. I attended the event with two colleagues who had an unfortunately long list of friends and coworkers to visit. We trudged through the Cemetery for hours, ensuring that each of the approximately two dozen men on their list had received a wreath. They had a story for each fallen comrade and fought back tears on many occasions. I still didn’t know anyone at Arlington, but I started to understand how fortunate I was to work in my profession and be able to say that.
Then we lost Blake. I saw the news article about a Navy SEAL who had died in a parachute accident in Florida, thinking the picture looked vaguely familiar. I recalled overhearing a recent conversation at the gym in which one of the girls was talking about how her boyfriend was at training in Florida. Was that….? I’d seen Blake at the gym a few times when he was in town visiting his girlfriend, but didn’t really know him. But after that, he became like family to our entire CrossFit box, as we banded around his girlfriend in the weeks and months that followed. We hugged. We cried. We worked out even harder, because that’s what Blake would have wanted. Blake was later laid to rest at Arlington, dozens of rows behind Ski, as the wars had waged on and Lot 60 continued to fill.
Today at Arlington, I finally understood. Today in the warmth of a late fall day, as leaves turned shades of red and orange, we laid Jeff to rest. Jeff was a colleague for many years, and his family also lives in my neighborhood. Jeff was the kind of person who had an infectious smile, no matter how challenging the situation, and that smile inspired you to work just a little bit harder. He led by example as he rose through the ranks of our organization, never becoming too busy or too important for anyone. Jeff’s positive impact was evidenced by the hundreds of people who attended his internment today. Two- and three-star generals, dozens of our country’s elite fighting men and women, scores of friends and family. I couldn’t really see the ceremony and strained to hear the chaplain’s words from the back of the crowd. But the retort of the 21-gun salute cut across the afternoon, and the slow sound of Taps was more mournful than any version I’d heard on TV or in a movie. Mostly, I just stood still and scanned the crowd, struck by the sea of tan, red, and green berets that matched the fall leaves. Eventually, the honor guard marched away and we were dismissed.
We had walked in at a brisk pace, brushing past the tourists rudely videotaping the group of uniformed heroes as we made our way to the rendezvous location. But I strolled more slowly as I headed for the gate, chewing on the events that had transpired.
I finally realized that Arlington isn’t about the volume. It’s not about the rows and rows. It’s about that one man. That one woman. Every single man. Every single woman who is laid to rest there. It’s about the power of one person to affect the lives of so many others, through their life or through their death. And it’s about remembering the one and living in a way to make the sacrifice of the one worth the lives of the many left behind.