Defense Media Activity
Edited by Erin Wittkop
My daughter is a military kid. Her Mom and Dad are in the Navy, she’s been on Navy ships where her grandfather served before she could walk aboard them herself; she lives on a base and goes to a school that educates a student population that is 97% active duty military children. There is much about her that echoes her family’s collective military service, but I don’t think she knew what being a military child truly meant until experiencing Christmas at Arlington National Cemetery.
I ventured out
this weekend with my daughter in tow for the annual Wreaths Across America program at Arlington National Cemetery and was immediately struck by what this meant to my daughter. She started out the day with child-like enthusiasm, trying to gather and place as many wreaths on headstones as she could. She would make the trips from the truck to the rows of headstones with solemn diligence as if she was on a one-kid mission to do it all. When one truck emptied, we moved on to a different section of the cemetery, always with quiet deliberateness…placing a wreath slowly down, ensuring the bow was centered at 12 o’clock and the ribbon was flipped “with the pretty side up” as she’d say.
She moved this way until we reached section 60. Section 60 is a punch in the gut; it will stop you in your tracks with its heartbreak and vivid pride. It did the same and more to my little girl.
Section 60 is Pandora’s Box for a military child–there are things inside that military families don’t talk about brought to life. Things like the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, a spouse or friends. It is the section of Arlington that LIVES. It is full to the brim with life seen in photos of families taped to headstones, kids running along the street, brightly colored picnic blankets set against freshly turned earth and private whispers. There are markers adorned with objects that make your heart wrench with anger and fear; small tokens from former lives and the lives that go on without loved ones.
My young, smart girl went on, weaving between headstones determined to bring Christmas in a small way to Arlington. However, as she worked, she couldn’t help but notice the smells that permeated the still, cold air that smelled mostly of the pine.
The smell of cigars and whiskey marked one man’s headstone. His family settled into foldable chairs as they spent the day with their son, gone two years now.
The smell of cookies and hot chocolate also mingled in the air with laughter and the raucous noise of children. Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors volunteers brought the sweet treats to warm the hearts and hands of children who were visiting parents who had served. These were small, but kind comforts meant to take the chill out of a tough morning.
The smell of aftershave and edge dressing that came with service members paying their respects to lost friends. Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Soldiers dressed in their best uniforms, prepared for an inspection to show their commitment to friendships that live beyond duty stations and deployments. Men and women that made the pilgrimage to meet over a friend’s resting place and remember.
While there are many things you expect to see at Arlington, the smells on this day were the most incredible to experience for both my little girl and me. And as the aromas continued to rise around her, my daughter’s own questions bubbled up.
She wondered how life went on when military families lost a loved one and how kids were doing after losing a parent. She wanted to know about these people’s lives that were so like her own and how they changed in an instant. Where had the funny Dad and Mom in the pictures served and how it was that they came home?
The day wasn’t all somber and sadness; she also got to see families smiling and remembering. She saw other families teaching their young children to honor those we’ve lost with community service. And we shared an experience that I’ll remember for a lifetime. I was brought to tears more than once by the grace of the survivors and the spirit of the program. We had a wonderful day together doing just what the Wreaths Across America program aims to do:
Remember. Honor. Teach.
She also hugged me a little tighter on the way home.
If you’re interested in viewing more images of the Wreaths Across America program, check this photo essay. Maybe next year we’ll see you there. To teach your kids more about honoring veterans and what it means to serve, check out this page by the Department of Veterans Affairs that is just for kids.