Growing up in a small suburban town with no living relatives in the armed forces, my experiences with Memorial Day were limited. Memorial Day was a chance for all the department stores to mark down their spring merchandise. It meant the Memorial Day parade, a fun, flashy celebration which I attended only once in my adolescence, and which was too convivial to convey any serious meaning. For me, Memorial Day invoke neither emotions for the armed forces, nor recognition of battles or war.This summer, in our nation’s capitol, I experienced Memorial Day in a very different way. For those seeking to feel patriotism, humility, gratitude and awe for the United States armed forces, I highly recommend the Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Arlington Cemetery is easy to find: take the DC metro to the Arlington stop, follow the giant chattering crowd and you’re there. Army presence is high, will all the soldiers impeccably turned out in their wool coats and hats with the chin straps. Be prepared to wait, and to sweat, with the hundreds of other eager tourists and locals walking with you. Crowd control is stringent and, at some points, creative: when crossing a street, we were told to form a single-file line and each take a pink index card from two soldiers, who acknowledged us curtly but politely with a uniform, “Good morning, ma’am.” (I’m convinced the pink index cards were a ruse to disperse the mob. We were never asked to produce the cards again.) Visitors are required to take the tram to the Arlington monument. Water bottles are not allowed. Be prepared to go through at least one metal detector.
My friends and I arrived at ten a.m. for the eleven a.m. ceremony, and were somehow able to snag spaces standing on the back steps of the monument, facing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We were no more than fifty feet from the tomb itself, and twenty feet from the center aisle of the stairs, where Obama and various dignitaries would eventually ascend.
The events of the late morning blurred together into a soft haze of glinting brass and stiff salutes. Representative squads of all five branches of the armed forces climbed the stairs in slow motion, like in an epic movie. Other soldiers presented their branch’s colors, hundreds of ribbons fluttering on flag staffs. A military band entered from the right and stood silently at attention.
A twenty-one gun salute signified the arrival of the man of the hour in the cemetery. We rushed to huddle at the edge of the stairs, my friends first and me following, reluctant to give up my prized spot next to the velvet rope that separated us from his future path. We snapped shots of a long black motorcade arriving under the shade of low-hanging tree canopies, and strained our necks to spy him among his advisors. Obama finally came into view, striding purposefully up the curved path with General Mullen, past the lines of service men and women standing motionless at attention.
The ceremony itself was brief. The military band played the national anthem, with Mullen saluting and Obama’s hand on his heart. An Honor guardsman wheeled the wreath forward for the President to grasp, and then slowly dragged it back into place with the President’s help. A lone horn played Taps. The announcer’s deep voice requested a moment of silence. Shortly, Obama and Mullen turned smartly counterclockwise in unison, giving me my one clear shot of Obama’s face. He looked careworn, and very tired.
As quickly as the two men had arrived, they were gone, striding up the steps to enter the monument’s inner rotunda. There, they greeted several dozen waiting veterans, before exiting through the front of the monument into the packed amphitheater. Everyone standing on the back stairs had been locked into the back of the monument until noon and the completion of the ceremony, but we heard the great shout go up as Obama was announced, and again at intervals during his twelve-minute speech.
It is unsurprising for Obama to give a moving speech, but it is surprising for a speech about the military to move me. Obama’s call on all Americans to remember and reflect was simple yet eloquent, well-delivered, and genuine. I will admit that I programmed an alarm into my Blackberry for three p.m., to remind me to think of the troops in some way at that time, as Obama requested.
Unlike any celebration I have attended before, this Memorial Day ceremony was intimate, serious without being somber, and brought home the humanity of the troops. It profoundly affected my view of the troops, if only for the day. Both exalted and vilified in the national eye, our armed forces risk their lives for the United States and its people, regardless of viewpoint. For that fact alone, they deserve our gratitude.