Whenever I am in the Washington DC area I always pay a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. For me, Arlington is a humbling experience. Each marker represents an individual…son, daughter, father, brother, sister…who has fought for our country. On the day I was there they were cleaning the headstones, no wonder it always looks pristine! I watch people look and observe, it is a place of reverence. There is a sense of respect and honor. If you ever visit Washington DC put Arlington into your plans.
My friend Julie went on this trip with me and she had never been to Washington DC. I promised to show her the highlights which included a stop at Arlington National Cemetery. We arrived at approximately noon and we walked through the visitors center then out into the cemetery. Our first stop was JFK’s place of rest. I do remember when he was shot and watching the coverage on our old black and white television. It was a sad feeling, although I was very young at the time it is a memory that has stayed with me for my entire life. Then shortly after was Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
My first impression when I visited Arlington several years ago has not changed. It is overwhelming to take it all in at once. The only sounds heard at JFK’s grave were the clicks of cameras and the mechanical sound from the cell phones that imitate the sound of a shutter opening and closing. We walked to Robert Kennedy’s grave. When looking at JFK’s grave then going to Robert’s there is a stark contrast. JFK’s resting place is more elaborate whereas Robert’s is very modest. They both have walls with engravings of their famous speeches. Robert’s site has a fountain, but it was not functioning while we were there.
As we continued our walk to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I noticed 3 canons at the foot of the staircase. I told Julie they must have something special going on because the canons are not a normal site at the cemetery.
I always go to see the changing of the guard. It is a solemn event. The young men who guard the tomb have dedicated their lives to this charge. It takes much discipline to be a guard. The honor that is bestowed and entrusted on those who serve their country in this capacity is more than what words can ever describe.
The precision in which the guard walks his 21 steps and the “click” you hear, often sends chills through my body. When the new guard comes into the hallowed ground he is inspected, head to toe, his rifle is checked, they walk in cadence with the guard who is watching the tomb.
Just as the changing of the guard ceremony ended I heard fighter jets in the distance. I raised my camera and started clicking away. I saw the 3 jets flying overhead and I told Julie, “This is not a normal occurrence, I wonder what is going on?” In just a few moments after the new guard took his post a canon was fired. I knew then there was something else going on at the cemetery that was of high importance. Moments later it was announced they were going to do a changing of the wreath ceremony. Only one other time have I witnessed this. I told Julie she was very fortunate that she was here to see this.
The canons continued to fire during the wreath ceremony. We started down the hill and we chose to go the less traveled path to make our way back to the visitors center. As we came around a turn I saw a hearse (we had seen one earlier in the day so we figured there was a funeral). I also noticed two Marines standing at the entrance to the road. There was a funeral. We made our approach, and I saw numerous troops, an honor guard, and a band gathered in the distance. My jaw dropped. As many times as I have been to Arlington I had never witnessed a funeral. However, this was not an ordinary funeral because of the shear numbers of military present. This explained the fly-over and the canons. I stood quietly while they gave the 21 gun salute and the playing of taps. The photojournalist in me was itching to take pictures and all the while kicking myself for not bringing my big lens that day. I started taking a few photographs here and there to commemorate this moment. The one thing that stood out for me was the red flag with 3 white stars. My guess was a 3 Star General. This was a big deal!
On the way out of Arlington I looked up the funeral schedule for the cemetery. Unbeknownst to me I had witnessed the funeral of a historical figure in our military. Frank E. Petersen, Jr. was the first African American Marine Aviator and the first African American Marine General to serve our country. General Petersen died on August 28, 2015 in his home. Petersen joined the military in 1952 and flew in over 350 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. He received the Purple Heart after his plane was shot down over the DMZ in Vietnam. In 1979 he was promoted to brigadier general; he earned his 2nd star in 1983 and his 3rd in 1986. He fought many barriers in his life and he was quoted as saying, “When someone says you can’t or shouldn’t do something, I go ahead and try it to see why the person didn’t want me to do it.” The Marine Corps was the last branch to get a black general; Petersen said, “Just to be able to say you kicked down another door was a great sense of satisfaction.”
October 30, 2015 will always remain a special memory for me. My dad had great respect for those who served and fought for our country. He always was insistent that when I went to Washington DC I should go to Arlington and watch the changing of the guard. He would have enjoyed this visit so much if he could have been there. I thought of him often that day. He always became emotional during taps. I am so proud of our service men and women who dedicate their lives to serving our country. They give of themselves to fight in battles that many of us do not understand. God bless our troops and our country. Protect and watch over all of our soldiers.
A few extra photographs from Arlington National Cemetery.