The news that some conservative critics were exacting their pound of flesh from a Democratic president for not laying a wreath this year at Arlington National Cemetery certainly was a reach, especially after the White House revealed that Vice President Joe Biden was going to Arlington -- and that the commander-in-chief would pay his respects at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill.
The Lincoln cemetery, 50 miles southwest of Chicago, was not one of the original 14 designated by Congress in 1862 and signed into law by President Lincoln himself – but neither was Arlington, which was then the recently evacuated home of Robert E. Lee. In the vicinity of the capital, Congress designated three sites: The Soldiers Home in Washington, where Lincoln spent his wartime summers, and cemeteries in Alexandria, Va., and Annapolis, Md. As those sites filled up in 1864, the government looked at the 1,100-acre Arlington estate, and began to use that land to bury the Union dead.
The sprawling Lee estate on the hill overlooking Washington had been inherited by Lee's wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. At great cost to himself and his country, Lee had ignored President George Washington's famous exhortation to his countrymen to keep their nation together and had commanded the rebel Army of Northern Virginia. To some Union officers, Lee's land seemed a fitting resting place for their dead -- a grim rebuke, as it were, to their former comrade -- while to others it was only a temporary, emergency measure. It's forgotten, now, but after the Civil War ended, some 300,000 Union war dead were located and re-interred in cemeteries closer to their families, including some of those buried at Arlington.
Any notion that this cemetery is somehow more sacred than the others is not only absurd; it is on its face ahistorical. The idea that a president is required to lay a wreath there on Memorial Day also has no valid traditional basis. As recently as 1993, a U.S. president left office without having done so once. His name is George H.W. Bush, and his patriotism and his bravery in wartime are beyond question.
The summer after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, then 17-year-old George Bush was in the graduating class at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Secretary of War Henry Stimson delivered the commencement address at Andover in 1942 and urged the graduating class to go to college instead of enlisting. It was to be a long war, Stimson told the boys, and their country would need seasoned and educated officers.
"George, did the secretary say anything to change your mind?" Prescott Bush asked his son nervously afterward.
"No, sir," young Bush said over his shoulder. "I'm going in."
And so he did, joining the U.S. Navy, becoming the youngest American aviator in the Pacific theater and winning the Navy's Distinguished Flying Cross for completing his mission after his plane was hit by enemy fire, killing two of his crew members, and dropping Bush into the Pacific Ocean.
This nation's passion for Arlington National Cemetery came when another World War II naval hero-turned president was buried there amid sadness and shock in 1963. John F. Kennedy's funeral was watched by millions of Americans, many of them his "Greatest Generation" cohorts, who decided that Arlington was a fitting resting place for them, as well. It's a beautiful and consecrated ground, but this nation's heroes are numerous -- too numerous to ever fit in a single graveyard.
It has always been thus, and we can grieve for the families of those who were lost, even while appreciating that we live in a country where so many of our citizens raise their hands in wartime and say, "I'm going in." Wherever they are buried is consecrated ground, whether it's one of the 133 national cemeteries or a private resting place known mainly to the family and friends of the fallen. It's their presence that consecrates the ground.
The hallowed ground in Elwood, Ill., serves as a reminder of that truth. It was designated as a national cemetery in 1999, but even before that, it was a burial ground for some of Illinois' best and bravest sons. In Section One, grave No. 1613, lie the remains of 1st Sgt. Theodore Hyatt of the 127th Illinois Infantry, who died in May 1863 at the Battle of Vicksburg, and for his gallantry as a member of a "volunteer storming party" was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Michael Pearson is buried in Elwood, too. He was an Army private known in his suburban Chicago hometown for his musical talent. He played piano, was a virtuoso at guitar improvisation, wrote songs, revered Jimi Hendrix, and hoped to someday be a music teacher. Instead, he was killed in last November's massacre at Fort Hood before ever leaving for Afghanistan. He was 21 years old.
Albert D. Ware, a 27-year-old infantryman did make it to Afghanistan -- twice, in fact -- but he didn't make it back home. He joined the service after 9/11 to do his part. His father, Thomas, recalls being afraid for his only son, but proud of him. Last December, Albert's mother, Anna, answered a knock at the door to find uniformed officers bearing the worst news a mother can hear. Her son, who died in combat when his Humvee was blown up, also left behind a wife and three children. Albert Ware is also buried at Elwood, the place his commander-in-chief is to visit Monday.
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