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05.29.11

The Changing Face of Arlington Cemetery

When I paid my respects as a newly minted Marine on Memorial Day in 1999, I never could have foreseen that I’d be remembering my own friends and colleagues on the same day twelve years later.

When I paid my respects as a newly minted Marine on Memorial Day in 1999, I never could have foreseen that I'd be remembering my own friends and colleagues on the same day 12 years later.

White horses clopped over the otherwise silent, hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery the crisp morning of Dec. 19, 2006. The horses pulled an open wagon carrying the flag-covered casket of my friend, Marine Maj. Megan M. McClung. She perished 13 days earlier in Ramadi, Iraq. As the honor guard painstakingly folded the flag and presented it to her parents, I realized Memorial Day would no longer be the same. The presently serving generation of warriors has real heroes to honor and revere.

The men and women remembered this Memorial Day were real people–sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives and husbands. They were strong and vibrant. They loved and were loved. And they are missed.

That has been the premise of this solemn day of remembrance since its inception 145 years ago. The meaning has not changed, but a generation shift began before Maj. McClung's funeral. The significance of Memorial Day has grown tremendously the past 10 years.

When I was growing up, Memorial Day was a holiday of importance, but it was more seriously observed by my elders than by my peers. Before 9/11, my Marine buddies and I would head off to the beach to party for the long weekend. We were out to have fun in the sun—to get away from the flag pole. There was no disrespect meant, I just didn't have a sense of connection to the day.

Honestly, I didn't have an excuse. I had already been to Arlington. On Memorial Day 1999, in a newly issued uniform, I stood watching, feeling somewhat out of place as men much older than me paid earnest, personal homage to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of liberty. Less than a year out of bootcamp, I knew those interred under the seemingly infinite fields of white grave markers deserved the nation's utmost respect. But they were faceless to me. I was grateful for them, but I did not know them.

Instead of just walking through the cemetery, I visit specific, new grave markers that bear my friends' names. Major McClung: Section 60, Site 8514. Sergeant Hays: Section 60, Site 8015.

I have, unfortunately, found it is different when you have personal knowledge of just how courageous, gallant, and real those fallen heroes were. Since that first visit, I have lost friends who were dedicated to making this world a better, safer place.

Corporal William I. Salazar enlisted a month after the war in Afghanistan began because he wanted to make a difference. We became friends in 2002 when I came back from Afghanistan and helped him prepare for his own deployment. He was killed in Iraq Oct. 16, 2004.

Sergeant Nathan Hays was as upbeat as anyone I knew. He took great care of his Marines. He died Jan. 10, 2002, in a plane crash in Pakistan just days before we were to leave the region.

So instead of being a bystander at Arlington, I now also mourn the loss of fine friends, my heroes. Instead of just walking through the cemetery, I visit specific, new grave markers that bear my friends' names. Major McClung: Section 60, Site 8514. Sergeant Hays: Section 60, Site 8015.

Of course, it was easier just being an onlooker. But I am certainly not alone. When I walk through Arlington now, there is a noticeable difference from what I saw back in '99. Many, if not most, of those coming out are my age. The crowds are larger. And this is not limited to Arlington. I have seen the same at other national cemeteries I have visited in New York, California, and Texas. I'd like to think the beaches and pools are a lot emptier for the day than they used to be.

Respects will be paid to those who very recently gave their lives to freedom as well as to those who died 40 years ago and beyond. Generations that had significant cultural differences are coming together, linked through the common interest of honoring the fallen. Depression-era World War II veterans, hippie-era Vietnam veterans, and veterans that began coming of age toward the end of the millennium are joining together, keeping Memorial Day a meaningful holiday much grander than the start of the summer season. Together, the day will continue to have personal meaning for generations to come.

Nearly 6,000 service members have died in the past 10 years in support of the present operations. That is about 10 times the number of American troops killed in action over the other 24 years of my life.

We do not honor war. Rather, today, we honor those who came back from war in flag-draped coffins. We also need to honor those who came back suffering with injuries or illness that eventually took their lives. Some of those wounds, such as toxic exposures, traumatic brain injuries, and mental illnesses weren't even detectable until it was too late.

We remember they gave all they had to give. They put their country—our country—before themselves. They fought for us and died for us. So many lives have been lost, but we are only asked to set aside one day out of each year. One day with great meaning.

On Memorial Day, I ask you join me in turning our minds and hearts upon those who have nobly died at the hands of tyranny, felled in defense of freedom, all taken too early. Do not let them be forgotten or go unappreciated. We will never be able to repay them for what they have given, but on this Memorial Day, we can show that we are grateful for them.

Joseph R. Chenelly completed combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1998 through 2004. He now is assistant national director of communications for the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) in Washington, D.C.