Deffner: Visit to Arlington

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(HOST) As Memorial Day approaches, teacher and commentator Joe Deffner has been thinking about a trip he made last year with a group of his 7th graders to Arlington National Cemetery.

(DEFFNER) Originally the property of General Robert E. Lee’s in-laws, Arlington was confiscated and occupied by Union troops following Lee’s defection to the Confederate cause.  Union General Montgomery Meigs designated Lee’s property as a potter’s field for the indigent Civil War dead who couldn’t afford to be buried anywhere else.  As such, for much of its history, there was nothing honorable about being buried at Arlington. It became the nation’s field of honor following John F. Kennedy’s burial there.  

The story goes that shortly before his assasination, upon visiting Arlington, Kennedy had actually remarked, "It’s so beautiful, I could stay here forever."  And so he did, the eternal flame marking his tomb for its legions of visitors.  And while we joined the thousands of others who visited the most popular sights in Arlington, the eternal flame and the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, what made the visit special for me are memories of the seventh graders at two sights far less popular with tourists.  

The first memory is of seventh graders sketching the tombstones in Section 27, perhaps one of the least visited sections in Arlington.  Section 27 is where the United States Colored Troops, or USCT as they were known, are buried.  Many of you know them as the soldiers made famous in the movie "Glory", the story of the 54th Massachussetts.

But for our kids at least, there was a story to rival Glory.  They’d been learning about Lieutenant Alanson Sanborn, from their own home town of Thetford Center, where he attended the same school they do. Alanson was an officer in the USCT and while he wasn’t buried in Arlington, some of his men were.

There are no crowds in Section 27 and no explanation of who the USCT were, but our students knew that in addition to fighting for the Union cause of keeping our nation, one nation, these men were also fighting for an end to slavery. They were literally fighting for their freedom.

The other memory is of our visit to Section 60.  Section 60 is the reminder that while Arlington is a field of honor which pays tribute to our nation’s fallen, it’s also an active cemetery which serves as a final resting place for those who give their last full measure in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Consequently, Section 60 wasn’t nearly as quiet as Section 27.  In fact, as I read aloud the final letter of a lance corporal from California who had been killed in Iraq, the war in Iraq came home to all of us.   

I was interrupted by the sound of a military band following the horse-drawn caisson bearing the casket of an American soldier.

In that moment, there were no war protestors or war supporters. We were one in our appreciation for a nameless soldier who had died in the line of duty, doing what he – or she – had been asked to do.

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