ARLINGTON, Va.-More than four million people visit Arlington National Cemetery annually, many go to pay final respects at graveside services, of which nearly 100 are conducted each week.
Such was not the case when I, my wife Becky, sister Maria Southall and aunt Rosa Kusterer made the trek from Parkersburg to our nation's "most hallowed ground". Our 5-hour trip was to pay respect to my aunt's husband, Robert Martin Kusterer, a veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where he was interred in November, 1999.
We each left, however, speechless at what we had witnessed as words fail to completely describe what the eyes saw.
Photo by Jim Butta
Arlington National Cemetery is divided into 70 sections, with some sections in the southeast part of the cemetery reserved for future expansion. The Washington Monument, shown in the background, is one of many national monuments that can be seen from the gravesites.
Established during the American Civil War on the grounds of Arlington House, formerly the estate of the family of Confederate general Robert E. Lee's wife Mary Anna (Custis) Lee, a great granddaughter of Martha Washington, the cemetery is situated directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The land was acquired by the federal government at a tax sale in 1864 for the cost of $26,800. Custis Lee, heir under his grandfather's will passing the estate in trust to his mother, sued the United States, claiming ownership of Arlington in 1874.
In United States vs Lee, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Lee's favor, deciding that Arlington had been confiscated without due process. Congress returned the estate to him, but Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000 the following year.
Since that time the more than 600 acres has become the final resting place for veterans and military casualties from each of the wars in which our nation has engaged. Arlington House (Custis-Lee Mansion) and its grounds are administered by the National Park Service as a memorial to Lee.
One of the highlights of any tour, however, has become the Changing of the Guard Ritual at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The guard is changed every hour on the hour Oct. 1 to March 31 in an elaborate ritual with that number more than doubling from April 1 through Sept. 30, when another change is added on the half hour and the cemetery's closing time moves from 5 until 7 p.m.
The Tomb of the Unknowns, also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, has never officially been named. It stands atop a hill overlooking Washington, D.C., and was approved by Congress as the burial site for an unidentified American soldier from World War I on March 4, 1921.
To the west of the tomb's sarcophagus are crypts of the unknowns from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Those three graves are marked with white marble slabs flush with the plaza.
The Changing of the Guard is not a long ritual, lasting approximately 15 minutes. A relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard and reminds spectators to stand and stay silent during the ceremony.
After performing a detailed, white-glove inspection of the new sentinel, he and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the tomb where they all salute the Unknowns who have been symbolically given the Medal of Honor. The tomb guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds-symbolizing the 21-gun salute-turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process.
Visits to burial site of President John F. Kennedy as well as Lee's Mansion followed, but we will always remember most the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Changing of the Guard.