All photos taken and copyrighted by Rus VanWestervelt at Arlington National Cemetery, May 29, 2016. Free to share with attribution.
My alarm went off at 2:57 a.m., and three minutes later, I received the text from my friend Trina.
Leaving now to commence with project honor Memorial Day.
Twenty minutes later, at 3:20 a.m., after I had gathered my photo gear and thrown some journals and pens in my backpack, I headed out the door and hopped into her Subaru wagon. We were on our way to Arlington National Cemetery, seizing a rare opportunity to photograph the hallowed grounds at sunrise.
We arrived at the entrance to the cemetery at 4:30, and we weren’t surprised that there was already a line of cars ready to be escorted to one of several areas. When we pulled up to the gate guard, she looked at the list of invitees on her phone.
“Madani and VanWestervelt.”
“We want to begin at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” I added.
She looked up from her phone. “You only get one choice.”
“Make it the Tomb, please.”
She checked our names on her list and smiled.
“Park behind the line of cars in the middle and wait for further instructions.”
We pulled up to the dark SUV at the end of the line. There were about seven cars ahead of us. Trina turned off the car, and the solemn sounds of songbirds filled the still-dark morning air. Here, even in this line, we could feel the reverence; the opportunity we had was not lost on us. And in those 30 minutes before the gates opened and we were escorted through the memorial grounds, we talked about life, about sacrifice, about America. Yet, even as we spoke in hushed voices, there was a touch of anxiety of what we were about to experience.
As the cars in front of us began to roll forward, and we crossed through the gates and turned left at the Memorial Hall for Women Soldiers, it hit us both, and words were replaced with short gasps and heavy sighs as we moved slowly through the magnitude of loss and sacrifice.
We were immersed in hallowed grounds that seemed to whisper, through the early morning scents of fresh detritus:
Remember our sacrifice. Remember our commitment to America. Remember the fares of freedom.
As Trina drove on, I thought about my nephews, Kevin and Kyle, who continue to fight for our freedom. I thought of my ancestor, a 1st Lieutenant in the Army who fought in World War II, who was buried here. I thought of my former students who have enlisted and who serve to protect and defend, at any cost, our freedoms. I thought of the countless number of friends who have children, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who have fought, or who currently serve, to keep our country safe and free.
I was overwhelmed by the seemingly unending lines of white graves marking each and every one of those sacrifices. Still, as we drove on in silence, I was haunted by another feeling. We were heading to the Tomb of the Unknowns, protected by United States Army soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, every single minute, of every single day, since midnight, July 2, 1937.
When we reached the tomb memorial, we could already see the sun’s deep hues rising in the east. We grabbed our gear and walked swiftly to the steps that were in front of the tomb, and I felt as if I had lost the ability to breathe. There, just feet in front of me, was the Tomb of the Unknowns and a single Guard standing sentry, silhouetted against the red wash of our Capital’s horizon.
The few photographers who were ahead of us were already busy setting up tripods and claiming their vantage points for the photo session, but Trina and I took the moment to absorb the enormity of what we were witnessing.
As the sun prepared to rise on American soil, protected for centuries by brave individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, the ritual of remembering them continued on, without missing a beat, for the last 79 years.
This was why we were here. First to honor, second to document. And although the rush of the sun peaking over the horizon at 5:43 a.m. was not lost on us, neither was the fact that through sunrises and sunsets, humid Summer days and snowy Winter nights, America is standing guard to remember, to protect, to defend, for the very foundation of freedom for all who call this great nation their home.
We found our place a little to the south of the Tomb and began the process of taking photos, trying to capture the essence of the experience.
The routine for the Tomb Guard watching over the graves is precise.
The Tomb Guard on watch marches 21 steps south down the black mat laid across the Tomb, turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds. The Guard then turns and faces north, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. The Guard marches 21 steps down the mat, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, then turns and faces south, changes the weapon to the outside shoulder, and waits another 21 seconds. This routine is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.
As I was switching cameras to get a wider perspective of the scene, I noticed another Guard just to my right, walking toward the soldier protecting the tomb. The Changing of the Guard ceremony was beginning, and I lowered my camera and succumbed to the overpowering emotion of the moment.
The soldier stopped in front of us and said, with an authoritative voice I have only heard in movies, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard is now taking place, and you are expected to remain silent and standing during the duration of this event.”
I removed my hat, and only with the greatest deference in remembering the second reason that I was here, I raised my camera to document the event.
First honor, second document.
When the ceremony concluded, and the sun had nearly pushed its way through the horizon’s line, Trina and I broke away and wandered among the grounds. We spent the next hour away from the camera clicks and conversations and found a certain solitude among the lines of graves that rolled over hills and never seemed to end. With each new ridge that revealed a new vantage point to capture the magnitude of sacrifice, there before us remained a new pasture rolling with thousands of small white graves, each with an American flag in front that seemed to recognize the individual names chiseled into the granite and marble headstones.
Leon David Sachter. . . Paul R. Greenhalgh. . . Rolland Nyle Davis . . .
By 7 a.m. we left the Cemetery and said little. We were filled with the respect, the honor, and the magnitude of sacrifice in those brief two hours that we had spent among the graves of the men and women who died believing their sacrifices were worth our freedoms.
I took these photos to document our nation’s most hallowed grounds at the sun’s symbolic rising of another day of freedom. But their colors, their images cannot touch what I carry inside of me. We sometimes forget that these sacrifices were — and are — made for us to live the way we do.
Perhaps I need to live my life a little more closely to the rituals of the Tomb Guard, where, even in my darkest moments, I never forget — even for a second — the sacrifices that were made for American freedoms. Very few of us ever have to make the choice of life or death for another, especially millions of Americans who will never know us personally. I will carry this perspective with me, fortunate for our freedoms, and respective of the sacrifices.
God bless the 1.1 million American service members who have died for those freedoms. May we remember you every day, every second, the sun rises over this great and free nation.