The last time I set foot in Arlington National Cemetery was September 10, 2001, the day before the world as most Americans know it changed. I had just turned 22 a few weeks earlier and was living just west of the cemetery, next to Fort Myer Army post. I was young enough still to qualify for a military ID card as my parents’ dependent, and often took advantage of the perks of Fort Myer, like the commissary, post exchange, and cheaper gas. Taking a shortcut through Fort Myer also gave me quick and easy access to many running trails just on the other side. It also made it easy to get to Arlington Cemetery, through which I often walked on nice days. September 10, 2001 was one such day, beautiful, in fact, and I walked through the cemetery that morning on my way to work, catching the Metro on the east side to complete my commute downtown.
In the days following September 11, security tightened up quite a bit, and my visits to Fort Myer became less frequent. Though I still had my military ID card, it wasn’t long before having to wait in increasingly long lines and answer security questions took the fun out of my excursions, and I eventually stopped going. A few months later, I departed for the Peace Corps, and never returned to Arlington Cemetery, until today.
Today was quite a bit chillier than it had been during my last visit to the cemetery, but every bit as sunny. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon wandering up and down the hills, enjoying the peace and quiet and visiting some of the better-known cemetery sites.
My first stop today was at the Women in Service for America Memorial, a place I hadn’t seen before. Dedicated in October 1997, it is one of Arlington Cemetery’s newer memorials.
Inside the Hemicycle, visitors can walk through an exhibit hall featuring the many contributions of women in the military. I signed one of the guest books shown below in honor of my mother, who served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps from 1981 to 2001.
I took one of the staircases to the top of the Hemicycle, which offers beautiful views of the cemetery and the Memorial Bridge.
To honor the more than 400,000 veterans and their family members buried at Arlington Cemetery and to and commemorate the cemetery’s 150th anniversary this holiday season, Wreaths Across America has placed remembrance wreaths on each tombstone. The wreaths will remain in place until January 24, 2015.
Naturally, I visited the grave site of President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, are laid to rest here side by side, honored by an eternal flame.
After paying my respects to the late President and First Lady, I continued my walk up the hill to the Arlington House, built between 1802 and 1818 by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington and step-grandson of George Washington. Raised by the Washingtons, Custis initially named the estate Mount Washington in reverence to George Washington, whom Custis had come to think of as his father. Custis later renamed the estate Arlington House after a plantation from the Custis side of his family.
I took a tour of Arlington House, and learned quite a bit of history while I was there.
George Washington Parke Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh in 1804, after construction on Arlington House had begun. Together, the couple had four children, but only one, a daughter named Mary Anna Randolph Custis, survived. In 1831, she married the young Lieutenant Robert Edward Lee. With their seven children, the Lee family lived in Arlington House when not at Lieutenant (and eventually General) Lee’s duty posts.
In 1861, at the onset of the Civil War, the Lee family left Arlington House and the land surrounding the estate became a base camp for federal troops. In 1863, a portion of the land became known as Freedman’s Village, a place to help slaves as they transitioned to freedom. Owing to the large number of casualties of the Civil War, the estate also became a burying ground for fallen soldiers. In 1877, General Lee’s son Custis accused the government of unlawfully confiscating his inheritance to establish what is today Arlington National Cemetery and was later compensated for the family’s loss of the estate. (Source: National Park Service Brochure)
This bit of history fascinated me, as a graduate of both Mount Vernon High School, just a mile and a half north of George Washington’s home, and of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Washington and Lee was founded in 1749 by George Washington and saved from ruin in 1861 when General Robert E. Lee became President of the University, then known as Washington College, just a few months after vacating Arlington House. Although the Lee family had lived at Arlington House for many years, General Lee and his wife and children are all buried in the crypt in Lee Chapel on campus at Washington and Lee University.
Today, Arlington House serves as a memorial to General Lee. It overlooks a beautiful view of our nation’s capital.
After my history lesson, I walked to the other side of the cemetery to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On my way, I photographed rows of wreath-adorned tombs.
This Tomb of the Unknown Solider is the resting place of three unknown soldiers, one each from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
The flag near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier flies at half mast.
Signs like this one below are posted throughout the cemetery, particularly at some of the larger memorials and all around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) keep vigil 24 hours a day, every day at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, no matter the weather.
I was fortunate to arrive a few minutes before the Changing of the Guard ceremony at 2:00 pm. I had never seen it before, and it was well worth the wait in the cold wind.
I left Arlington National Cemetery deep in thought about the fallen who rest here today.
These words, spoken by President Kennedy and inscribed on the stone wall surrounding his grave, capture the feeling I had as I exited the gate: And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country and fellow citizens of the world. Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Words to live by, in my opinion.
Thank you for reading!