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Arlington National Cemetery is a place of honor

Helen Miller shares her reflections about this hallowed final resting place

March 13, 2011
Messenger News

As I sat down to write this article, I was reminded that along with myself, there are many who are mourning the loss of a loved one. My husband, retired Air Force Col. Edward A. Miller, was a physician and served in the U.S. Air Force for 30 years. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Feb. 10. Arlington National Cemetery is the premier burial site for our nation's military dead. Among the last words I spoke to him were to tell him that our oldest child had suggested that he be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. He responded with a knowing, decisive nod of his head.

Ed's interment service at the Old Post Chapel was simple and beautiful. It was the first of three that were held that day. The Old Post Chapel, located at Fort Myer Army Post, Va., is immediately adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, and has been the scene of many funerals for those interred in the cemetery. After the chapel service, the flag-draped casket was set upon a caisson, which was pulled to the gravesite by six horses. The caisson was followed by the Air Force Honor Guard unit. As I rode behind the procession, I had the opportunity to view the rolling expanse that was Arlington National Cemetery. It was at that moment that I became acutely aware of the majesty, tranquility and history of this place. It was not just a place for mourning and grieving, but a place for remembering and honoring. Ed, now a part of that history, could not have had a more fitting place to end his earthly journey.

At the graveside, my children, grandchildren and I were seated beside the casket. The chaplain presided over a brief service during which there was a 21-gun salute, taps were played, and the flag that had draped his casket was folded and presented to me. At some point during the service, a lady was escorted to where I was seated. She knelt at my side, offered words of condolences, and placed two cards into my hand. One card was from the Air Force chief of staff and the other a personal, hand-written note from her. She was an "Arlington Lady," a member of a small group of volunteers who are mostly the spouses of retired military officers. These individuals attend every funeral in Arlington National Cemetery. Their mission is to make certain that no soldier is ever buried alone. Her presence at my side was one of the briefest yet most poignant and memorable events of the day.

The land upon which Arlington National Cemetery sits today has a long and rich history. The step-grandson of George Washington, George Washington Parke Custis, owned the land and built a home there. His daughter married Robert E. Lee, and later inherited the land from her father. The Lees lived at Arlington for 30 years until forced to leave by the Civil War conflict.

After leaving his home at Arlington, Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in 1861, and joined the Confederate Army. Soon after, the federal government confiscated the 200 acres which comprised the Custis-Lee Plantation. Their home, Custis-Lee Mansion, is now called Arlington House, and was used as a headquarters for the Union Army. Today, the mansion is managed by the National Park Service as a memorial to Robert E. Lee while the land surrounding the mansion is known as the Arlington National Cemetery and is managed by the Department of the Army.

In 1863 the federal government established Freedman's Village on the grounds of the estate to "protect black men." It was intended to house former slaves, train them for jobs and educate their children. Approximately 3,800 former slaves who had lived on the estate were buried in what is now called Section 27 (originally the Lee rose garden) of the cemetery. The rich legacy of African-Americans in Arlington, Va., today can trace its roots to Freedman's Village. The village was home to freed slaves until 1900 when its residents were paid $75,000 by the federal government for the buildings and property. The town was then torn down that same year.

James Parks, a former Arlington Estate slave, dug the first grave for a military internee in what has become Arlington National Cemetery. He was Pvt. William Christman who was buried there on May 13, 1863. By the end of the Civil War, 16,000 soldiers had been buried at Arlington. Parks was freed in 1862 under the terms of the will of his former owner, George Washington Parke Custis. He worked as a gravedigger and groundskeeper from 1862 to 1929, and was the only person born on the estate and buried there.

The Arlington National Cemetery was established by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who was the commander of the garrison at Arlington House, and appropriated the grounds on June 15, 1864, for use as a military cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery and the West Point Cemetery at the U.S. Military Academy are the only two cemeteries for which the Army is responsible. Other national cemeteries have been administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs since 1973. Individuals who have served on active duty in any of the service branches, are retired from active duty (including retirement due to disability), are the widow or widower of an individuals buried at Arlington, or are the minor child or dependent adult child of an internee may be buried at Arlington. (See CFR Ch. V (7-1-97) Section 553.15)

Today, Arlington National Cemetery is comprised of 624 acres and is divided into 70 sections. More than 300,000 veterans and their dependents are buried there. Furthermore, casualties from each and every war are buried here as well. There are almost 30 monuments and memorials in the cemetery, many more if you consider that each government issued headstone is considered a monument. Internees include historical figures such as Pierre L'Enfant (Gen. George Washington's aide) and President John F. Kennedy. Each year, visitors to Arlington National Cemetery number almost 4 million. They come to Arlington because it is a sacred place where our military dead are remembered and honored, and in many instances, to spend time with a loved one. For me, Arlington National Cemetery has become more than a noteworthy place in America and American history. It now has both historic and personal meaning for me and many others who have buried their loved ones there.

No matter what paths each of the individual internees lives took, they are at Arlington where they are honored and remembered by their fellow countrymen for their service to the United States of America. I am honored that my husband, Edward A. Miller, now has a place in that history. I look forward to a time when I can visit Arlington National Cemetery as a place to honor his memory and his service, and less to mourn his passing.

Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, represents Fort Dodge in the Iowa House of Representatives.



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