A song of gratitude at Arlington National Cemetery

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Brandon Robbins places a flag at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Brandon Robbins places a flag at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday. (Paul J. Richards/afp/getty Images)
By Page Johnson
Sunday, May 30, 2010

I stand under an aged oak, and the rows of simple white headstones extend in their heart-stopping sweep across the Virginia hills of Arlington National Cemetery. Each stone sentinel is dressed and at attention, calling to mind both the life and the death of the soldier who lies beneath. Solid, steady and unyielding, the markers stand in counterpoint to the soft green earth and capricious light that dances across their faces.

One weekend in May, each of these white uniforms is decorated with a small American flag, placed there by a living soldier's hand. These flags are brilliant in the afternoon sun, and it is my privilege to walk among these honored ranks to remember those who died in service to me.

But the men and women who sleep in these rolling hills didn't know it was for me that they fought in the forests of the Ardennes or in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. They didn't know it was for me that they left behind wives, husbands and sweethearts, children and parents, friends. I, too, didn't know until life's experience began to teach me how precious my freedom is. Only by examining my life -- taking stock of all the blessings and opportunities that have been mine because of the freedoms I can count on as an American citizen -- could I begin to understand the purpose of their service and the meaning of their sacrifice.

Here, in the staggering serenity, it can be hard to feel worthy of the price they paid. I stoop to read the headstones -- this one so old the inscription is nearly gone, that one so new the sharply chiseled name and date take my breath away. Who are you, young soldier, and how did you come to be here? How far from home did Basra, Hue, Inchon, Corregidor, Verdun or Bull Run seem when you were in harm's way?

The shadows lengthen, and I am a dot among ranks of white that advance toward the horizon in all directions. Here and there a canopy above a fresh grave briefly interrupts the procession, but still the warriors continue their silent march. These are the generations who fought to preserve the freedoms that our forefathers bequeathed us, and though I do not know their names or faces, they are a part of me.

So on this day of memories, I come to tell them thank you. I come to tell them I honor their service and the heritage they have given me. Most of all, I come to tell them that they are neither alone nor forgotten. I will be here for them, in spirit and in deed, and for their fellow soldiers trying to make a safer world so the children of every mother and father can sleep securely at night.

I turn to leave as a bird alights on a headstone and chants a twilight benediction. I realize that I, too, am like this little bird -- free as well to sing my own song wherever and whenever I choose -- because someone I never knew died to ensure I could. I am grateful for the gift.

The writer's parents, Col. Lewis F. Townsend Jr. and Mary Carr Townsend, are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. She wrote this essay while visiting the cemetery grounds on Memorial Day weekend in 2009.

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