A Picnic at Arlington

June 9, 2016 – Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia

Row upon row, section upon section, white headstones stretch farther than the eye can see. Each one the final resting place of some man or woman who served their country. Many died on battlefields around the world fighting a nation’s wars. Many are heroes, if to none other than those they fought beside.

Over 400,000 American men and women are buried here. Since the War Between the States many of America’s fallen have been laid to rest in these grounds. More are added every day. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is here. This is history, these are facts. Bravery, honor, heroism, duty. Arlington is full of these things. But too often we forget something very basic about the people the names on all those stones belonged to.

My girlfriend, Lisa, and I went on vacation to Washington, D. C. in June of this year. I have loved American history since I was very young. This was my first time in Washington, D. C. We only had a few days and barely scratched the surface sightseeing. We walked around the Mall one day. We saw the U. S. Capitol and the White House another day. I was loving it, soaking up everything like a dry sponge drinks a drop of water.

Then Thursday we went to Arlington National Cemetery. I was excited, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Changing of the Guard, the U. S. Marine Corps Memorial, the Eternal Flame at the grave of JFK, I wanted to see it all. The most moving thing I saw in D. C. was not on my itinerary, however. Lisa knew some men who had died in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and wanted to visit their graves. As we walked, walking between the graves in respect of the dead, she would place a small glass stone on top of each headstone, to show that someone had visited their graves and let their families know that their loved one was remembered. While she was doing this, I saw something that still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. It was a picnic among the graves.

A woman and her teenage daughter had spread a sheet on the grass over one grave. They had plates of food set out. I do not know who they were. I do not know whose grave it was. It really doesn’t matter who it was. But this was no desecration. There were three plates set out. These two were sharing one more meal with their husband and father.

We need to remember that those buried here are not just numbers, not just casualties of war, they are also fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They were people and most of them left friends and family behind. They did not just sacrifice their life, but their lives. They sacrificed a chance to watch their children grow up, a chance to love their husbands and wives. And their families have sacrificed as well, losing someone they loved. Their lives have been turned on their heads.

We can’t bring their loved ones back. But we can be supportive. Laugh with them, cry with them, remember with them. Help them try to find normal again. They will never forget and they shouldn’t. The pain will never completely disappear. Don’t tell them to “get over it”, their life changed dramatically in a moment and they will not just “get over it”. They need time to adjust to a new normal. The best thing we can do is just be there for them.