It’s 13 April 2017 and my alarm breaks the silence at 0700. As I roll out of bed and sit upright, I realize the floor beneath my feet isn’t that of my home. The window is in the wrong location, the ceilings too high and nothing feels right. It takes a moment to gather my thoughts and remember exactly where I am. This isn’t uncommon when I travel and find myself in an unfamiliar hotel. But this day, I awoke in Building 50, Wainwright Hall, Ft Myer Virginia. Perched high atop a hill adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking the Washington Monument, its historical purpose becomes clear. Formally known as Ft. Whipple, this 1863 Civil War fort was originally designed to defend the Capital City.
Spring had arrived in Washington D.C. Unlike home, some 700 miles away, the flowers were in bloom, grass mowed and birds chirping while they bounced from tree to tree. My immediate and extended families slowly make our way to the rental cars lined up outside. Just a short drive down the hill towards the Potomac River we follow the signs to Memorial Drive and arrive at the main entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. It’s just after 0800 and already, tourists have clogged the entryway to these hallowed grounds. A single guard directs the line of vehicles in front of ours to the visitors parking garage. As we approach and roll down the window, I have to overcome the lump in my throat to state my last name “Meisner“. As if he were expecting us, the guard nods his head, offers condolence and directs us to the Arlington Administrative Building.
We find a spot in what quickly becomes a bustling parking lot. Many familiar faces start to emerge from the cars. Faces that have been in my house while growing up. Some from as long ago as my early childhood. Others from my high school years. These faces, bearing more wrinkles and gray hair than I remember, are those of my fathers peers and subordinates. Officers that I recall sitting in my living room some 20 years ago. Discussing with their Battalion Commander an upcoming deployment overseas. And laughing about the antics conducted at last summers Battalion picnic. Surprisingly, after so many years having passed, these familiar faces are able to zero-in on my brothers and I to offer their condolences. Or share an anecdote about our father. I was both impressed and touched by their gesture.
Once gathered at the Administrative Building, a towering figure with the booming voice of an ex-drill sergeant got our attention. With military precision, he directed us to a rally point within the cemetery. I had my own preconceived idea of how this was going to go down. A few members of the Old Guard would load my fathers casket onto a horse drawn caisson and we would follow him to the burial site. What I didn’t expect were the 30 or so members of the band, a half dozen officers, an entire Infantry platoon, and a lone riderless horse in tow. The riderless horse carried an empty pair of highly polished boots in its stirrups and a brilliant silver sword housed in a black sheath. This is the Army’s equivalent to the missing man formation at an Air Force funeral.
Our family, dear friends and co-workers quietly stroll behind the flag draped casket, surrounded by the perfectly aligned white head stones of our National Treasure. Passing under McClellan Gate, I read the inscription overhead “Rest on embalmed and sainted dead, dear as the blood ye gave, no impious footsteps here shall tread on the herbage of your grave.” The mesmerizing clacking of the horses cadence on the pavement gave way to deep reflection. The sheer size of Arlington National Cemetery is difficult to comprehend. Over 400,000 headstones on 624 acres mark the location of Sailors, Airmen, Soldiers, Astronauts and Presidents that made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. And sadly, that number continues to climb.
A lone Soldier stands erect 75 yards away from the casket as it lies near its final destination. His bugle echoes a solemn tune through the cemetery as the Honor Guard presents arms. Although I’ve been out of the Army for several years, something compelled me to salute. A fitting good-bye to my childhood hero. From one soldier to another. Despite anticipating the 21 gun salute, I still twitched as the crack of the rifles pierced the solitude in perfect unison. Looking at the young faces of these well rehearsed soldiers as they fold the American Flag covering his casket, I couldn’t help but see my reflection in them. Once a well-trained soldier myself, it was like I could feel the very fabric of the flag passing through my hands. The Chaplain spoke of military tradition and offered a beautiful sermon. And although he never met my father, he still referred to him as his brother.
His widow accepted the neatly folded flag with 3 spent casings tucked into it, one from each volley of fire during the 21 gun salute. On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.
Although my father wasn’t killed while fighting in combat, he did succumb after a hard fought battle with Leukemia. 27 years in the Army taught the Colonel how to continue the fight to the very end. Because of the timing of his death, Arlington assigned his burial site in Section 60; the saddest 14 acres in America. There are no famous Generals or Presidents here. Instead, Section 60 is the final resting place for the soldiers of our most recent wars in the middle east. Spend some time walking through Section 60 and you’ll learn something about these soldiers. You’ll witness widows laying on the graves of their husbands. Soldiers drinking a beer with a fallen comrade. Grieving parents having a conversation with their son or daughter. It’s an eerie scene of the ongoing relationship between the living and dead.
In 2003, Captain Ripptoe of the 75th Ranger Regiment marked the first burial in Section 60. Also buried there are the 38 members of Extortion 17. The deadliest helicopter crash in the history of US Special Operations. Most of whom were members of SEAL Team 6. And only a few grave sites to the left of my father lies 36-year-old Senior Chief Ryan Owens. The most recent SEAL casualty from a raid in Yemen.
And so, Dad: although my heart mourns, I’m happy that you are in such good company. I know I didn’t tell you enough how much I love you. But until we meet again in Valhalla, I salute you…rest easy sir.
This article was originally published on the Loadout Room and written by
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