It was 7:30 in the morning when I arrived at Arlington National Cemetery with a group of 50 Americans of Greek descent from around the country. We were there with other groups including Vietnam Veterans, members of Rolling Thunder, families, reporters and others who were lining up to pay their respects to our fallen soldiers. Rain had been predicted, but for one reason or another, the warmth of the sun peeking through the scattered clouds had us wrapped in its embrace, as though preparing us for a truly mystical, spiritual experience.
We were there to honor and remember all the fallen, and brought along with us 500 wreaths to place at the graves of Greek American soldiers, who like their fellow brothers and sisters in arms, gave their lives for the freedoms we now enjoy. As the gates opened and the guards let us through, we separated into groups and proceeded to our assigned sections, driving past the hundreds of headstone-filled acres.
Beyond placing wreaths and reciting a prayer at our assigned graves, three chance encounters that day gave a new dimension to the meaning of Memorial Day and the work I do at VA.
Perhaps the most emotional of these encounters came as I was walking with my father, wreath-in-hand, across section 12 of Arlington Cemetery. We walked near a gravestone surrounded by three lawn chairs, when all the sudden, a man said, “Hey! Catch! Here’s a goodie bag!” In a bit of a shock, I responded, “Oh! Thank you!” and before I was able to ask the man what this was for, as though anticipating my question, he said “It’s my son’s birthday today! There’s a cigar in there, some bourbon and a snickers bar! Good stuff! Enjoy it!” I felt myself being totally lost for words.
Nothing about law school or years of practice as a trial attorney could have prepared me for this. My father and I walked up to him watery-eyed, shook his hand, barely able to utter a few words of thanks to him and for the sacrifice his son made. His son died in Afghanistan in 2011. He was 30 years old. We laid a wreath, and after thanking the man again, walked toward our next gravestone in total silence, through the moist, thick grass.
The next surreal moment came as we were walking by another section at Arlington Cemetery; Section 7 I believe it was, which was overlooked by the Arlington House at the top of the hill. Gazing out toward the never-ending gravestones, the sound of a single bagpipe hummed in the soft morning breeze. Our shoes were soaked at this point, but none of that mattered. We stood speechless, our emotions churning within us as we saw a bagpiper, standing in the middle of the grave-field, in front of what seemed to be his fellow soldier’s resting place, blowing the sounds of Amazing Grace. There was barely anyone around the bagpiper, yet the sound, even from afar, reverberated loudly through the depths of our consciousness. Again, there were no words, just a lump in our throats and tears in our eyes as the words “ultimate sacrifice” gained new meaning.
Finally, toward the end of our visit, the entire group felt it important to spend a few moments at the “new” section to honor not just the heroes of generations past, but the heroes of our own generation. The number of young fallen soldiers was astounding. Yet again, the words “sacrifice” and “courage” were insufficient to describe the magnitude of what we saw. Rows upon rows of perfectly-aligned, white marble stones, each representing a life departed, the life of a soldier, a life given up so that we can live ours.
Visiting Arlington National Cemetery is not an experience which is merely something to be crossed off of a checklist. It is a visit all of us ought to make, a pilgrimage of sorts, because movies, the news and stories cannot express what one feels when seeing the cost of war and freedom firsthand, walking through the over eleven hundred acres of graves. As a VA employee, my mission has gained new meaning. If our Veterans are staking their lives to preserve our way of life, if a father has to commemorate his son’s birthday with his gravestone, then surely, we must do everything in our power to honor their sacrifice.
About the author: Georgio F. Comninos, Esq. is associate counsel at the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington, D.C. He joined the Board in November 2016 because he wanted to help Veterans. Georgio is an active member in his community and is passionate about public service.