Arlington National Cemetery - A True Memorial for the Times

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by stvchin on September 21, 2009

Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) is America’s most notable military cemetery and considered hallowed ground. It’s located in Arlington, Virginia, just west across from Washington DC across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. There is a Metro rail station stop adjacent to ANC, there is a pay parking structure for those that want to drive, or you can walk across the Memorial Bridge from the Lincoln Memorial to ANC. It’s less than a mile to walk the bridge to ANC, and it’s a very nice walk too.

The approach to ANC via the Memorial Bridge is flanked with two large bronze statues. One of these statues is titled "Valor" and the other is titled "Art of War," each with a man on a horse and a woman with a shield guiding the horse. Once across the Memorial Bridge on the ANC side, there are several memorials along Memorial Drive leading up to the entrance. On the right we pass the Seabees memorial, and the left has a statue of "The Rider," which commemorates the Rough Riders of the Spanish American War. From here, you can see the ceremonial entrance to ANC, where Memorial Drive ends at the Hemicycle, a very large monument in the shape of a semicircle, which also houses the Women’s War Memorial. We actually turn off to the left prior to the Hemicycle to the parking lot and visitor’s center. The visitor’s center has restrooms, a gift shop, information desk with maps of ANC, which are very handy due to the fact that ANC sits on 624 acres. The only buses allowed inside ANC are the Tourmobile. On a hot day, the walk around ANC can be a bit of a burden for some especially since ANC is hilly, so the $27 tickets for the Tourmobile might be worth it.

Our first stop up in ANC is up the hill to John F. Kennedy’s Eternal Flame. The placement of the memorial is aligned with the Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial. The Eternal Flame is a continuously lit gas flame memorial at John F. Kennedy’s gravesite. It’s a very solemn place. The Eternal Flame is in a granite circle above the grave markers of John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, their son Patrick, and their stillborn daughter Arabella. The dates for their two children are especially saddening, Arabella’s dates being the same day born and deceased, and Patrick’s being only 2 days apart. I wasn’t born when President Kennedy was assassinated, but you can’t help but to come away with some sort of sympathy and sadness, as well as respect when viewing the Kennedy’s gravesite.

Just visible beyond the Kennedy gravesite is Arlington House, originally home of Confederate general and famous Virginian, Robert E. Lee. Story goes that the United States designated his home and the grounds around it for Arlington National Cemetery, so Lee could never return to his home to live there. However, as time wore on, Arlington House was designated the Robert E. Lee Memorial, serving as a measure of respect to Lee.

We continued up the hill towards the Tomb of the Unknowns. As we walked past different sections of ANC, we looked at the names and dates on the different grave markers and tombstones. It’s saddening, yet interesting reading the dates and accomplishments of the people on the tombstones.

At the Tomb of the Unknowns, there is a large white marble sarcophagus which represents the unknown soldier. There is an inscription which reads "HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD." The Tomb of the Unknowns was first created to honor the unknown World War 1 soldier, and the unknown from later wars are represented by white plaques directly in front of the sarcophagus. The three plaques are for World War 2, The Korean War, and Vietnam. The unknown soldier that was originally buried under the Vietnam plaque was identified, exhumed from the Tomb of the Unknowns, and given a proper burial. There is a soldier with a rifle guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns at all times. The soldier walks 21 steps across a rubber mat, then faces the tomb for 21 seconds, then walks 21 steps back and repeats until the changing of the guard. The 21 steps and 21 seconds represent a 21 gun salute. It was over 100 degrees on this sunny and humid August day, yet the guard continued his watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns with his sunglasses and dark colored wool uniform. The tomb is guarded regardless of the weather.

During the summer, the changing of the guard occurs every 30 minutes, and occurs 1 hour apart during other seasons. We watched the changing of the guard. It’s a very precise process. As the current guard continues his route, a replacement guard and commander will approach. The commander addresses the crowd regarding the ceremony and asks for complete silence. Then, he thoroughly inspects the replacement guard’s uniform and rifle. In unison, and without visual cues, all three, the current guard, replacement guard, and the commander turn and walk to the opposite end of the rubber mat, then back to the center, where the current guard is relieved and the replacement guard takes his place. The whole ceremony takes about 10 minutes and is quite fascinating to watch. The soldiers are very precise and deliberate in their movements, and able to perform synchronized movements without seeing each other nor with any verbal cues.

Directly behind the Tomb of the Unknowns is the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater. It’s a white marble amphitheater which is modeled after old Roman amphitheaters. State funerals and Memorial and Veteran’s Day ceremonies are held here. Walking out of the rear of the amphitheater, we see several more distinct memorials. There are the memorials for the Space Shuttle Challenger, Space Shuttle Columbia, and Iran Rescue Mission. Next to these three memorials is the Canadian Cross, honoring US citizens that served and died in the Canadian military during World War 1, World War 2, and Korea. Beyond those memorials is the USS Maine Memorial. These are very interesting in themselves. These are events I was taught in school, yet have largely forgotten as a result of time. Not many "Remember The Maine" anymore, but the USS Maine Memorial at ANC helps us to never forget. The actual mast of the armored cruiser USS Maine stands tall as part of the memorial.

We saw other military honor guards prepare for actual funerals, and we saw funeral processions drive down Memorial Drive into ANC. That was yet another sobering observation. There were a lot of other parts of ANC that we didn’t have time to explore. Given the time, I would have liked to have seen the other memorials on the grounds. A lot of memorials are about things we may have learned in history classes in school, but have put in the back of our minds and largely forgotten until seeing their memorials at ANC. Although quite somber, this is a good activity for everybody. I heard little children asking their parents about memorials to particular events and what they meant and what happened then. These times make for good history lesson opportunities with their kids. I would make it a goal to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, Virginia
Arlington, Virginia, 22211
(703) 607-8000

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