It was something we had wanted to see for a number of years – beautiful green wreaths, each with a large red bow, decorating row after row of headstones turned white with the passing of time. Christmas Day, 2011 was the perfect time to do it!From the General of the Armies of the United States, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to a Chief Warrant Officer, Thomas W. O’Connor, they had wreaths.Now, that is not to say that all 300,000 + headstones had wreaths, because they didn’t. The section that my grandfather is in didn’t get them this year, but I’m sure it did in years past.The sections with recent burials were covered with wreaths and flowers. Out of respect for the families of these heroes, I did not take pictures or even go into the areas. There were too many grieving family members and this was not the time to intrude upon their privacy. Our hearts ached for them, fathers comforting mothers and young widows sitting silently at the graveside of their lost love.
Of course the Unknown soldiers from each war (World War I, World War II, and Korea) had a wreath. There was also a wreath placed on the Vietnam space, now empty because the unknown who had been interred there had been identified.
In 1998 when 1Lt Michael Joseph Blassie had been identified by that new science, DNA testing, his remains had been claimed by his family to be reinterred in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. The spot reserved for an Unknown from the Vietnam era is now marked with a marble slab and the words “Honoring and Keeping the Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.” If you are making a trip to Arlington National Cemetery, you must, and I repeat, you must, see the Changing of the Guards! These men are disciplined and are dedicated to their mission. Before you see the ceremony, however, you should read what these men do to prepare for their duty shift. They each take their job seriously and have gone through rigorous training just to qualify for a place in the Honor Guard. The picture shows the Relief Commander inspecting the Honor Guard’s weapon. At this point he has already inspected his dress uniform, looking him up and down, front and back. He is now inspecting the weapon, running his white glove over the whole thing. This is an impressive thing to watch.
Each Honor Guard serves a one hour shift, walking 21 paces each way, turning on the 21st step to face the Tomb for 21 seconds, then turns to face the other way, changes his weapon to the right shoulder, waits for another 21 seconds and then repeats the process. The 21 steps is the same as the 21 gun salute, the highest honor given in the military. The Guard does this without changing his expression for the entire hour!
The man on the inside is the new guard, the man in the middle the man he is replacing and the only man with his rank showing is the Relief Commander. At the end of the ceremony, the replacement starts his 21 step walk and the Relief Comander and the man he is replacing step off with him. What you see above is the point where the two leave him and he takes over his duties.
As we were getting ready to leave the Relief Commander appeared and announced there would be a Wreath Laying Ceremony and there would be silence. At that the Honor Guard marched out of the Memorial Amphitheater and lined up for the ceremony. To conclude the short ceremony a Bugler played the traditional Taps and the Honor Guard left in the same perfect, rigid order in which they had entered. The additional wreath was placed directly in front of the other wreaths.This was not the end of our day, but was probably the highlight of our day. Seeing not only one, but two ceremonies honoring those who have sacrificed so much was definitely moving and something we were glad we had the opportunity to witness.
It was our Christmas Blessing.