Arlington’s Fallen Heroes Through The Eyes of a Wells Middle School Student
Eighth-grade students from Wells Middle School are currently visiting the Washington D.C. area for a five-day whirlwind trip of our Nation’s capital. Wells Middle School student Alexandra Stassinopoulos is chronicling for OneDublin.org some of her experiences over these five days. On President’s Day the students visited Arlington National Cemetery. They toured the cemetery and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Alexandra’s first article covered the Wells visit to Gettysburg.
“When soldiers march,” begins Abe, our bus driver/guide, enroute to Arlington National Cemetery. “They march in straight lines. And that is why, in death, they rest peacefully in straight lines.” True to Abe’s word, as soon as you walk into Arlington you see row upon row of white tombstones. So many that they soon become waves, swelling over the hills.
As we walked up the main path, Abe told us stories about some of the grave sites. The very first story was about Cpl. Larry E. Smeldley, who, at eighteen, is the youngest soldier buried at Arlington. Smedley joined the army to fight in Vietnam for the simple reason that his buddy joined the army. But, don’t take that simple reason for enlisting as a sign of lack of dedication. Days after beginning his tour of duty, he sacrificed his life for his unit, becoming a fallen military hero who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor AND the Purple Heart. For me though, the most impressive part of this hero’s story is that those guys in his unit he sacrificed himself for, he knew them for only two weeks.
We continued up the path and as we get near the top of a hill, Abe told us another story. This story was a little different, instead of being about a fallen soldier; it was about Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights leader. Marshall was one of those prodigies you hear about. He graduated from college when he was nineteen and applied to Maryland State University to earn his law degree. But, they wouldn’t let him in for one really stupid reason: because he was an African American. So, he went to the Howard School of Law instead, but he didn’t forget what Maryland State did to him. In fact, the first case he ever argued in front of the Supreme Court was Brown vs. The Board of Education and won – the first of many cases in defense of civil rights. During his career as a lawyer, he would in fact become the person who argued the most cases in front of the Supreme Court and eventually the first African American justice. Upon his death, Marshall requested to be buried at Arlington where he rests peacefully today.
After we visit Marshall’s grave, we continued up the hill, which is dominated by a house reminiscent of Mount Vernon (the home of George Washington). Near Arlington House, as it is called, is the grave of one of the two presidents buried at Arlington; President John F. Kennedy. Buried with many family members at his favorite spot at Arlington, Kennedy’s grave also includes an eternal flame that symbolically demonstrates the ever-lasting remembrance of Kennedy and his ideals.
However, the part of our visit to Arlington that I found more moving than the stories and the president’s grave, was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the ceremony where Wells got to lay a wreath at the tomb. Nobody has any idea of who is buried in any of the three graves, but yet we give them the highest military order. Everything the Old Guard does in honor of these soldiers is in reference to the twenty-one gun salute. He takes twenty-one steps down the map and direction he faces, he faces for exactly twenty-one seconds. In the U.S., Unknown Soldier is pretty much completely synonymous with hero.
Our group was lucky to witness the changing of the guards, an exact and very impressive ceremony preformed every time one guard is relieved of duty. After the guard is changed comes the wreath laying ceremony. The four students chosen to lay the wreath solemnly walk down the steps from the amphitheater and hand the school wreath to a guard who places it in front of the grave. Everybody stands silently, with their hands over their hearts as taps is played. One of the people who got to lay the wreath, Karyn Utsumi, said “It was a once in a lifetime honor to be able to lay the wreath and I was really, really glad I got to do it but, it was also super cold.”
Wells left the cemetery at sunset, the most beautiful time of day. Beautiful because of the way the red light curved around the trees and hills, profiling them against the heavy sun. But it is also a reminder, because as the final burst of light flares out, it reflects off the white stones of each grave, highlighting everyone in turn as far as the eye can see. You can see so many graves which belong to someone’s brother, sister, father, or son and it is driven home to you, the fact that freedom wasn’t free. You can see just how many brothers, sisters, fathers, and sons have given their life for our country.