Shadows of Sept. 11 hung over this year’s Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
But in downtown Arlington, the American Legion’s annual ceremony was almost a celebration, with music, flowers, and a troop of elementary school soccer players.
The two ceremonies were a study in contrasts — the national ceremony, attracting visitors from around the country and around the world, was a somber affair, as Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, stood in for Pres. George Bush in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.
In Clarendon Park, the ceremony organized by nearby American Legion Post 139 was shorter, by almost an hour, but packed in more color and songs. Patriotic songs sung by seventh graders from Kenmore Middle School, a procession of wreaths, and purple-clad members of the Key Science Focus Lightning soccer team seated amongst American Legionnaires, combined to attract the attention of passing pedestrians and motorists with patriotic songs.
But both ceremonies ended on a common theme: a hope that the ongoing war on terrorism would be transformed, and prayers for soldiers serving overseas would also be prayers for peace.
It is a theme that hearkened back to the origins of Memorial Day, said Bob Smith, head of American Legion Post 139. Reading from a proclamation by Bush, he told the crowd in Clarendon that at 3 p.m., they should join in "a moment of Remembrance, and a day of prayer for permanent peace."
<b>AT ARLINGTON CEMETERY,</b> Wolfowitz stood in for Bush, who was in France for Memorial Day. After laying the traditional wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, he moved to the dais in the Memorial Amphitheater.
Many speeches over the next hour dwelt on the theme of Sept. 11, beginning with the invocation, by Col. Kerry Steedley, an Army Chaplain. "May the shadows of death from Sept. 11 be transformed," Steedley prayed, "transformed by your grace into healing and hope."
The crowd included a scattering of American Legionnaires, members of Veterans of Foreign Wars and other veterans groups, along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But most of the audience were visitors to the cemetery, tourists or locals who made the pilgrimage this Memorial Day to the site of some of America’s most prominent memorials.
Wolfowitz recognized them in his speech.
"Thousands of people come to Arlington each day. Thousands are here now," he said. "Some come to see the resting place of a president, or of a military hero. Some come simply to see this garden of stone, to offer a quiet prayer to a name they have never heard before, a name etched above a soldier’s grave."
Ultimately, he said, Arlington was the resting place of Americans, soldiers who fought to preserve freedom, justice and the American nation. It was a theme, he said, that stretched back to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
"Lincoln knew that… the men who fought and died recast this nation — they remade it into something better than it was before," Wolfowitz said. "A nation where the right of the people to govern themselves is realized, where religion is a matter of personal conscience, where dreams are large."
<b>THOSE DREAMS WERE</b> opposed, he said, by the terrorist hijackers of Sept. 11, men "whose dreams are small, whose world is circumscribed by bigotry and persecution, resentment and oppression, hatred and death."
They thought they knew the limits of Americans, that the nation would be crippled by the attacks. But they were wrong, Wolfowitz said. "Throughout our history, Americans were there to do the right thing, on fire to do the right thing."
As the son of an immigrant, he said, he counted himself lucky to live in a country that could say that. "I know … how deeply fortunate we are to know that there are those among us who have been willing to risk death for that."
As the service closed, Navy chaplain Capt Gene Theriot also urged the audience to give thanks for the men and women now fighting the War on Terrorism.
"As we remember those who’ve gone before us, we now pray for those sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines whose shoulders bear the letters ‘U.S.’" Theriot said. "And we pray that you bring us to this place next year in peace and in freedom."
<b>PRAYERS AND SPEECHES</b> struck receptive chords in the audience, and many of the veterans on hand said they were pleased with this year’s ceremony.
"I thought it was tremendous," said Russ Shanely, a World War II veteran from Quakertown, Penn.
Shanely, who served in the Washington area as the war was winding down, said this year’s ceremony was the end of a long wait for him.
"I was planning to do this for 10 years. I was always active in my VFW, but I just couldn’t make it."
Harley Coon agreed.
"I thought it was great. Anytime we honor Korean war vets is great," said Coon, national president of the Korean War Veterans Association. "When there’s a crisis, we look to the soldier and to God. When the crisis is over, the soldier’s forgotten and God’s forgotten."
The turnout at this year’s Memorial Day ceremony was large, a good sign, Coon said, and one of the few bright sides to the aftermath of Sept. 11. "The country pulled together. I hate to see something like that happen, but at least that came out of it," he said.
But Coon also expressed frustration with the recent spate of terror warnings from the Bush administration. "You can’t cry ‘wolf’ too often," he said. As an example, he said, his hometown in Ohio had bought a tornado siren, and tested it by setting it off everyday at noon. "Consequently, people got used to hearing it," he said. "We’re better off not knowing if there’s no certainty anything is going to happen."
Kurt Harris, from Bowling Green, Ohio, said he was happy with this year’s offering more than other years, for special reasons. "I come to a family reunion in Annandale, so we try to come out here nearly every other year," said Harris, attending the ceremony with 15 family members. "But my uncle was in the color guard this year, so it was kind of special for us."
He was disappointed, however, when he found out that Wolfowitz would be the speaker, instead of Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, or some other Cabinet level personality.
"I was a little let down it wasn’t a more senior person," he said. "I’d never heard of him before. But we had a good time."
<b>AT ARLINGTON’S WAR</b> Memorial in Clarendon, all of the personalities were lower wattage. But attendance at the event was up, Smith said, and others saw signs of a renewed interest in Memorial Day.
Jeff Fischbein, a social studies teacher at Kenmore Middle School, takes some of his seventh grade students to Clarendon Park for a sleepover every year before Memorial Day.
They research some of the names on the War Memorial, and talk about the lives of the men and women from Arlington who died fighting for the country — an attempt, Fischbein said, to raise their awareness about what and who Memorial Day is all about.
After Sept. 11, he said, it’s been easier to teach, and it’s been easier to find memorials, he said. "Two years ago, I went out to get flags for this, and only found them at a real estate agent’s," Fischbein said. "Now they’re everywhere."
Parent coaches from the Lightning, a youth soccer team drawing from Key and Arlington Science Focus elementary schools, also brought their young charges to the local Memorial Day observance. Before the ceremony began, Richard Paddock drilled his sons and their teammates on the meanings of the military acronyms next to each name on the monument.
As the ceremony began, they took seats on the ground, watching as representatives of local veterans groups lay a half dozen wreaths at the foot of the memorial. The ceremony passed by in silence, broken by songs from Kenmore seventh graders, and music from fifer Greg Hernandez, a Vietnam veteran from Sterling, and bugler Jack Butler.
At the end of the 30-minute observance, Smith read the full text of a proclamation by Pres. Bush, declaring Monday Memorial Day. It called on all Americans to observe a moment of silence at 3 p.m., as a way of paying tribute to America’s fallen veterans.
"I just read the proclamation. I just thought it should get out there," Smith said.
<b>AS SEPT. 11</b> came to the fore in both ceremonies, the victims of the terrorist attacks had their own accidental memorial, evident through its absence.
In Clarendon, trucks and buses rushed by, Metro trains whooshed by underneath. In Arlington Cemetery, helicopters buzzed overhead on occasion, and tourist buses beeped as they backed up.
But nearly nine months after the terrorist attacks, as both memorials ran their course, no planes flew overhead.