As families across the nations trundle into airports and minivans to make their annual pilgrimage home, I found myself boarding a plane eastbound to Washington DC with my two youngest girls this December, to visit my family and make the obligatory rounds in the District of Columbia.
On our first night in The Capitol, we paid a visit to the Arlington National Cemetery, where we caught the last shuttle through the monument for the day. I hadn’t visited the ANC since I was a little girl, when I remember feeling awestruck at the somber ceremony for the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the time, my very loose grasp on what it all meant made it difficult for me to sit still, except the sense of peace and tranquility and the respectful energy emanating off of the crowd in the warm, early summer air, made it feel very important to me to keep my restless, eight-year-old mind still. Now, 32 years later, I stand next to my 14 and 17-year-old daughters, knowing they understand more clearly, what the empty tombs in front of them represent.
One is for the unidentified World War I soldier, laid to rest without a name, to honor the thousands of others like him, who, without the aid of DNA identification, were disfigured or destroyed beyond recognition, separated somehow from their dog tags and any other evidence of who they once were. And then, in front of the marble sarcophagus, the three flat gravestones that represent the Unknown Dead of World War II, the Korean War, and one to represent the many thousands of missing service members in all conflicts, whose ends remains unknown. The fourth tomb was formerly the Unknown Soldier of Vietnam, but in 1998, the remains were exhumed and using newly developed DNA analysis, 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie of the United States Air Force, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, was identified and returned to his family for proper burial.
Behind the four tombs, rows upon rows of white headstones sprawl out above the DC skyline. As the sun began to set, the glow backlit the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome that were nestled into the cityscape beyond the eternal flame where John F. Kennedy is buried with his family. These 624 acres hold more story in them than an entire nation can bear to hear. More than 400,000 honored dead find their final resting place at ANC. Nearly 30 burials a day are conducted at the cemetery, some, as aging warriors spend their final hours peacefully at home, and others, younger, who have met violent deaths in far away places – and a few at home.
After we watched the final Changing of the Guard for the day, it was nearly dark and the cemetery staff was eager to escort us all out through the gates so they could close, but I had one last mission to accomplish. I have been working on a story about a friend of a friend. A Marine warrior who lost his life in 2014. A hero who had received a Purple Heart after he lost both legs when two anti-tank mines exploded under his transport in Iraq. A fighter who went on to compete in the paralympics as a skier and a marathon runner with prosthetic legs. Casey Owens died in October of 2014 by his own hand after years of fighting a greater enemy than the one that blew him up in the middle east. He is memorialized by a simple white headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, and after learning Owen’s story, I was intent to find it and pay my respects.
My girls were up for the adventure when we snuck past the cemetery guards ushering guests out and trotted off into the darkening gravesites. The last super moon of 2017 was rising overhead as we followed the directions to his grave, giving us some light as all of the street lights in the cemetery area were turning off. It was an eerie sight, rows of glowing white marble in the chilly moonlight, our breath puffing out in big clouds was the only company as we moved through the graves.
We passed an open area about the size of half a football field that had exposed dirt and a couple of freshly opened grave spots. I realized that we were in the area where soldiers who were recently killed would be buried, and the space was ready to welcome the latest fallen heroes. My heart tightened at the thought of that space filling up, and the new graves that had just been dug, running through a catalog of the recent fallen in my mind.
My daughter found Owens’ headstone, where a little American Flag sat quietly at the base, as if lying peacefully out of the breeze so as not to disturb the resting Marine. Owens died at his own hand, but he was no less the warrior, and no less dead for his service than any other hero laid to rest in Arlington. He lays among ancient sailors from generations ago, and soldiers from the Revolutionary War. He rests among United States Presidents, astronauts, and I am sure, more than one or two scoundrels in the 400,000 graves interred there with the heroes and their families.
Owens, like so many others, will not be with his family this Christmas. No airports or minivans or sleeping on the couch. But in addition to the warriors like Owens who lie at rest in Arlington, we have more than 1.3 million active duty troops stationed around the world, including my own brother-in-law, and the son of one of my best friends. Most of them are away from their families this holiday season, but our earnest hope and prayer is that it will be one of the last holiday seasons they spend apart from us, and that their place at Arlington National Cemetery will remain empty for a very long time, until, like many of the Cemetery residence, old age peacefully beckons them to the halls of Valhalla.
Until then, remember our troops deployed, or on duty while visions of sugarplums dance in our heads. Remember the ones fallen, and the ones who were overtaken by the enemy after they returned home. Reach out to the soldiers and veterans you know, thank them for the holidays that they have missed so that we never miss one.
If you’re interested in volunteering for the Wreaths Across America program, placing a wreath at the gravesite of every fallen soldier during the holiday season, visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org where you can sign up to hang wreaths locally or donate to support the cause. Join us in remember our troops this holiday season.