Beginning at the End
By Donna A. Tallman
Where is John F. Kennedy’s grave? What do OEF and OIF mean on a headstone? Where’s the bathroom? Who’s the oldest dead person buried here?
A woman, who has answered the same questions for more than a lifetime, sits at a kiosk in the middle of the Arlington National Cemetery Visitor’s Center patiently answering every question as if it’s the first time she has heard it. People scramble about, filling water bottles, snagging tourist trinkets from the gift shop, and taking pictures…lots of pictures.
I take none. I’m not here to capture or preserve history; I’m here to experience it. Shortly after returning from our tour of duty in Spain in 1968, my family and I went to Arlington. We made the traditional loop up to the Kennedy graves where I saw carved in stone the reality of Senator Kennedy’s assassination. That was almost forty years ago, and I have returned now as an adult, a grown up Air Force brat, a mother of three young men; a patriot.
A squad of uniformed military cadets enters through the southern door. The sea of people suddenly parts and the corridor opens before the squad. The cadets walk smartly, heads up high, heels clicking on the highly polished floor, not one wrinkle among them. The squad never breaks stride in their cadence; nor bead of sweat on their brows, despite summer’s oppressive heat. A holy hush follows them. They have come to Arlington to begin at the end.
In search of my own pilgrimage through America’s history, I leave the majority of tourists behind and turn toward today’s history found in Section 60. This section has been set aside for the soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
As I walk the empty access road, I am immediately engulfed by silence. Except for a lone gardener, I see no one. On this visit, I want to do more than travel through Arlington. I was not raised to be an American “tourist,” who enjoys the benefits of liberty but lives disconnected from the soldiers who have secured it. I want a commission.
Lord, make me an ambassador of hope to the soldiers who serve on the front lines of America’s wars and to their families who await their safe return.
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, `plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)
*This devotion is an excerpt from Stories of Faith and Courage from the War in Iraq and Afghanistan (AMG Publishers 2009), co-authored by Jocelyn Green, Jane Hampton Cook, and John Croushorn.