March 24, 2012
A lot goes through your mind when you stand at attention for nearly an hour at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb stands at the center of Arlington National Cemetery, hallowed ground for our country. The occasion yesterday was the visit of Admiral Bernard Rogel, Frances top ranking naval officer. The day was clear and cool, with high clouds and brilliant sun. I had the honor of attending the ceremony as Adm. Rogel laid a wreath at the Tomb. I had come with the Naval Academys French exchange officer and a van full of American Midshipmen
The young sergeant of the U.S. Army Third Infantry, tall and very thin, sternly admonishes the crowd to stand and be silent during the changing of the guard. It is in keeping with the dignity of the occasion, he says. Everyone in the shorts and tee shirt group of tourists respectfully obeys. The Tomb is guarded twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.
Watching the passenger jets pass by, preparing to land at Reagan National Airport, my mind goes back to 9/11. On that day, American Airlines Flight 77 had just taken off from Dulles Airport, twenty-six miles west of Washington, D.C. when it was hijacked. Captain Charles F. Chip Burlingame, a Naval Academy graduate, had no chance to respond to the unanticipated terrorist assault. The flight plowed into the Pentagon, killing all on board, and hundreds in the building.
I immediately wonder what must have been the reaction here, among these Tomb Guards. The Pentagon is just a mile and a half away. They must have known the country was under attack. The fifth general order, which we are all required to memorize in boot camp, states: To quit my post only when properly relieved.
I can guess what the Tomb Guards did on 9/11. Years ago, I was part of an honor guard for an arrival at the San Francisco Coast Guard Air Station. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales landed there because security officials considered it unsafe his jet to land at San Franciscos commercial airport. Radicals at Berkeley were threatening to blow up Prince Charles and his entourage.
When royal jet landed, it taxied away from us, toward San Francisco Bay. This was not something wed been told to expect as we trained for weeks for this arrival. Had a bomb plot been uncovered? Were they whisking the prince to safety?
Would we become not just an honor guard, but human shields? Those five minutes were among the longest of my life. None of us Coast Guardsmen standing at attention moved a muscle. It was a relief to see the princes jet come back to us. It was now flying the Union Jack and the royal standard of the Prince of Wales outside the jets cockpit. Id never seen such a thing before or since. Doubtless it was intended to impress the happy natives. It did.
Yesterdays breeze catches the gold-tasseled flags, American and French, and they snap in the wind. Unobtrusively, I count off the nineteen-gun salute to Admiral Rogel. We had passed those polished, gleaming howitzers on our way to the Tomb. Nineteen guns is the second-highest number accorded a visiting dignitary. Twenty-one guns would be fired off for the President of France, or the U.S.
Again, I thought yesterday of Staff Sergeant Adam Dickmyer. He was one of these Tomb Guards. The brother-in-law of my friend Will Estrada of the Home School Legal Defense Association, Sgt. Dickmyer laid down his life for us in Afghanistan in 2010. He was just 26. It is sobering to know that men so young—many even younger—are daily sacrificing themselves for our freedom. Yet it has always been so. People in the military say America is the land of the free because of the brave. They are not wrong.
At Arlington, there is a time capsule in the cornerstone. It was placed there almost a century ago. It contains U.S. currency and stamps from the 1920s. It also contains a Bible. The simple inscription carved into that gleaming white Tomb of the Unknowns is consistent with what we learn in that book of books:
Here Rests in Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known But to God.