Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day casts a long shadow in Alexandria. As home of the first national cemetery — predating Arlington National Cemetery by about two years — the city is a final resting place for thousands of military heroes. As wars rage in Iraq and Afghanistan, the importance of memorializing those buried in Alexandria National Cemetery has taken an increased measure of importance over the last several years. During a stirring ceremony Monday morning, one of two at the Alexandria cemetery, the American Legion honored those who gave their last full measure of devotion. An earlier ceremony was conducted by the National Sojourners.
"We are truly enjoying the fruits of their labor," said Kris Hines, delivering the invocation for American Legion Post 24. "Help us, that we may justify their noble sacrifice."
The ceremony memorialized Americans who have died since the Civil War, offering a patriotic salute to the flag and a heart-tugging remembrance of those lost over the years. Allan Gruer delivered a keynote address that summarized the history of the cemetery and its relationship to the growing city around it. Calling the setting a "a dignified and serene" place, Gruer noted that graveyard was the first military cemetery to be racially integrated and the first to inter a woman.
"It was originally known as the Soldiers’ Cemetery," he said. "It’s a distinguished final resting spot with an interesting story."
THE LOCATION of the cemetery was a matter of convenience. The military railroad that once brought a steady stream of deceased soldiers to town ran along what is now known as Roundhouse Lane. The old gate where the coffins entered the cemetery still connects the road with the graveyard, now acting as a pedestrian bridge between the growing Carlyle neighborhood and Old Town.
"Freedom is not free," said former Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland, a member of the American Legion. "We must remember those who have gone on before us because we stand on their shoulders."
For many veterans, Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember old friends and reconnect with their own past. Bill Jones, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 609 and caretaker of the cemetery, said he always enjoyed spending time with veterans — especially on Memorial Day. A graduate of Wakefield High School in Arlington, Jones earned four Purple Hearts in Vietnam and is an expert on the Alexandria National Cemetery and its history.
"If you ever want anyone to watch your six, find a veteran," said Jones, invoking military directional parlance. "There are no finer group of people in the world."