Every year I struggle to come up with something fitting to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on the field of battle for this nation that this day honors, and every year I fail miserably. How can mere words hope to come close to conveying the debt we owe them? While most of what I write about are the petty political squabbles and the partisan political battles fought in the halls of Congress, this day is instead about those who have stood up to a real enemy and faced the terrors of war; sacrificing all to defend that which those in political office more often than not demean.
They never asked about the foreign policy ramifications of their duty assignments, or the orders they were asked to follow; nor did they concern themselves with how their actions would affect the next election. They accepted politically correct "Rules of Engagement" from their superiors (who in turn had to accept them from a 'civilian authority'), regardless of the additional danger such nonsensical rules often placed them in. Mostly however, they fought for those they fought beside, for their country, and for their sacred honor.
And while it cost some of them all that they had, it cost their families as well; leaving far too many fatherless or motherless children behind and far too many grieving spouses in a land that has far too few good ones to believe that it can afford to lose any. A folded flag in a glass case may well be a great honor for a person's service, but it doesn't warm the other side of the bed, nor comfort a frightened child against the terrors of the night.
These are the cold, hard facts that I not only wish far more of this nation's citizens understood when they hear the names of the lost intoned at the end of a newscast. Far more than that however, I wish that it was something our elected representatives comprehended more fully before coming up with their half-baked plans to save a world far less interested in saving itself (and usually from itself). I wish that these public servants appreciated the potential consequences of their 'votes' before seeking to resolve the historical prejudices of human nature in conflicts that have been going on since the dawn of civilization. I wish real thought of the success these gambits was considered before risking the best and brightest of these brave men and women in yet another political misadventure designed to make politicians in some way 'look strong'. The bi-partisan political posturing and madcap misjudgment in Washington have become a never-ending debacle placing far too many in harm's way may ... a place they may never return from. Oh hell, enough.
Instead of trying to express what may in fact be inexpressible, I will do what I inevitably do each year at this time and fall back on using the monument which most aptly describes what this day is truly all about, and on those who are granted the honor of guarding it:
The tomb has at one time contained the unidentified remains of a soldier who served in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam, and has been guarded continuously since 1930. (Though a soldier killed in Viet Nam was originally interred here, that body was later removed and identified through DNA testing. It was subsequently decided to leave the Viet Nam crypt empty.)
* The Guards are members of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), and wear no rank insignia on their uniforms while on duty so as not to outrank one of those lying in the Tomb.
* The Guards take 21 steps, in recognition of the 21 gun salute; the highest honor given anyone in the military or any foreign dignitary. Upon completion of those steps, the guards hesitate 21 seconds in memory of that same honor, turns 90 degrees and hesitates again for 21 seconds, then completes another 90 degree turn and hesitates yet one more time before resuming their march.
* The Guards march with moistened gloves to prevent the gun from slipping from their grasp while on duty.
* Guards are changed every 30 minutes; 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
* The guards always carry the rifle on the shoulder furthest from the tomb. This move places the sentinel between the tomb and any threat.
* The Guards of the Tomb, an honor currently carried by very few soldiers (there were just over 500 people in 2008), is awarded only after careful examination and is recognized by the award of a wreath pin. They subsequently live under very strict guidelines of personal conduct for the rest of their lives.
* For the first six months of this duty, guards spend most of their free time learning of the most notable people buried in Arlington National Cemetary in preparation for their exam. With their rigorous training, hours of marching, and rifle drill, they have little time for anything else.
* Each guard spends five hours each day getting his uniforms ready for this duty.
* In 2003, as Hurricane Isabella approached Washington and while Congress took 2 days off in anticipation of the dangers of this storm, these guards stood to their duty. Soaked to the skin, they continued to march their rounds in the pelting rain of a tropical storm. They had been offered the opportunity to suspend this assignment but refused; stating that such duty was not simply an assignment, but was the highest honor afforded to a serving member of the military. (They repeated this act of courage in August of 2011 as Hurricane Irene similarly bore down on Washington DC.)