A Lesson for My Daughter

A section of Arlington National Cemetery, Va., shows a fraction of the 110,000 wreaths placed at the graves of fallen service members during Wreaths Across America, Dec. 15, 2012. DOD photo by EJ Hersom

A section of Arlington National Cemetery, Va., shows a fraction of the 110,000 wreaths placed at the graves of fallen service members during Wreaths Across America, Dec. 15, 2012. DOD photo by EJ Hersom

By Navy Lt. Tiffani Walker, 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.

Lt. Tiffani Walker's daughter places a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery December 15, 2012 during the Wreaths Across America Day. Courtesy photo.

Lt. Tiffani Walker’s daughter places a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery December 15, 2012 during the Wreaths Across America Day. Courtesy photo.

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.

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  • Guest

    CAP Cadet with the Nevada Wing, never ceases to amaze me how much spirit little ones have. I’m proud I myself took the time out of busy high school this last Sunday to put on my best dress blues and lay wreaths myself. We here in the Nevada Wing also follow the 12 o’ clock making sure it’s “pretty side up” then we take a step back (careful as not to step on another gravemarker) 3 Second salute bringing your hand up, hold for another 3 seconds, 3 seconds bringing it down. The 3-3-3 rule as someone described it to me. I also believe this is the “Ceremonial Salute” used by many guardsmen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1023859563 Karen Santiano Francis

    Beautiful, Tiffani. Section 60 is harder to stay in – but the most alive space there. the new graves, the markers – but the space is often full of families and friends.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gail.r.sorensen Gail Rohr Sorensen

    What a beautifully written message! My Dad’s grave is in one of the last rows of “older veterans” in section 60… before the graves of the most recently laid to rest heroes. I know that if the LORD has allowed my Dad to glimpse down from Heaven, he is so honored to be close to so much love and respect for family and loved ones:)

  • David L Peterson

    Thank you so much for sharing this story…

  • http://www.facebook.com/bestump Bruce Stump

    I’ve been to several National Cemeteries, from Arlington to Gettysburg to Shiloh. I am always struck by the representation of the men and women who gave the last full measure of devotion, to this great nation.
    One grave stands out in my memory. It is at the Shiloh National Cemetery. There are hundreds of graves in the normal neat rows, but one is out ahead of the others. I do not recall the name, but it is marked “Drummer” and lists a company and Ohio Infantry Regiment.
    I’ve often wondered why, the drummer, who may have been only 15 or so years old, was laid to rest out ahead of his brothers in arms. We camped near the cemetery doing a living history event with the NPS. It was a humbling experience indeed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/margie.knickmanyeager Margie Knickman Yeager

    Section 60 is the section we head straight for, This year while laying a wreath on the grave of my sisters freind who attended high school with her in the next row was a grave of a baby who passed at birth , we assumed ( son of a soldier ). Upon returning to the section for the second time we noticed the parents sitting on the ground in front of the grave which still makes me cry when I think about it!! Everyone should do this a least once it is such a humbling experience and my 6 year grandaughter wants to do it next year! I shae this experience with family and my daughter who is currently serving in the US ARMY. I look forward to sharing this with my grandaughter for years to come.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AmandaJoJustice Amanda Justice

    I stumbled upon this and it made me cry. My husband was KIA in early 2011 and buried at Section 60. Every time I go visit him, I find myself walking along the rows, looking at photos and trinkets. I also look at the dates and the “sayings” on the headstone. I feel like I want to know more about every person … I want to hear their stories. On spring and summer weekend days, that section of the cemetery is so “alive” and vibrant. While it is a somber place and many tears are shed there, it is amazing how many people say they are completely at peace there. I have shared many drinks with friends over my husband’s headstone, telling stories and remembering … even laughing. We have a now five year old daughter and I anxious for the day that she can realize all that Section 60 means. Thank you to you and your daughter for participating and honoring our fallen. It means so much.