May 31, 2021
The National Cemetery at Quantico, Va., is a gem of a place, perched on the rolling green hills outside the big Marine Corps base called “Crossroads of the Corps.” And, as at so many other hallowed spots, veterans and their families will gather there today to honor the men and women who have fallen.
The Corps is in charge, all personnel in dress blues. Aging vets from a nearby nursing home are brought over by bus. Officers and enlisted persons of the other services, some finished with active duty, show up in uniform. Members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group are always there.
The ceremony is brief, usually one hour. The Marines parade the colors. The base commander offers his welcome, a chaplain leads an invocation. Local veterans leaders say a few words. A retired colonel in colonial garb recites a poem honoring the flag. A federal official gives a keynote. A Corps honor guard fires a salute, a Marine plays a solemn Taps.
The crowd, mostly veterans, spouses, children, drifts away slowly, as if reluctant to lose their sense of the sacred that is the essence of the place. As they linger, the narrow roads that thread between fields of headstones fill up with the vehicles of those who come to honor the men and women interred on those lush, shaded hills. Volunteers have marked each headstone with a small flag. Families bring flowers. Some kneel and pray. Some cry.
For the first time in many years, we’ll miss the hushed reverence of Memorial Day at Quantico. Meanwhile, the solemnity and timelessness of honoring the fallen has taken a hit. The sense of obligation to country and to those who serve was trashed by Americans who attacked the Capitol on January 6 and wounded 140 police officers in an act of insurrection, some using American flags as spears. Some of the attackers are veterans, some are active-duty. Some of their political patrons pretend nothing very serious happened. Thousands of fake patriots still cheer for overturning the result of the presidential election.
I don’t remember exactly when we started going to Quantico for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The services for both are similar, as to be expected. But it seemed the right place to be, even more appropriate than Arlington, where the president speaks to thousands and lays a wreath in front of cameras.
Sandy and I went to Quantico I guess because of my own history at the base. The Quantico service doesn’t get celebrity four-stars or Cabinet members. It doesn’t get the Marine Band, although some of Quantico’s musicians are there. No U.S. Senators show up, in my recollection. It could be because the Marine Corps is the smallest service with the smallest budget. The Corps donated the land for the cemetery in 1983. Marines are used to doing without big bucks. So the ceremony is, well, austere, in a peculiar way that strips away theatrics.
So the Quantico remembrance, simply put, gets people who served, former and retired enlisted and company- and field-grade officers and their families. Usually it’s a couple hundred folks. They stand for the colors and ponder the meaning of some reverent words. No show. Lots of gray heads.
I wondered about the impression the Quantico service makes. The tone and content aren’t polished and rehearsed. The people in charge aren’t professional stage managers. The talks come across as spontaneous, heartfelt, but at times a little rough-edged, with a little stuttering, sometimes a tad too long. Maybe they convey for those who served and those close to those who served something true, the truth of service to country, which is, for Memorial Day, the truth of war.
I missed landing in Vietnam as a second lieutenant by an accident of scheduling. I arrived on Okinawa in September 1972 to join the Third Marine Division, after staying on in Q-town for a three-month tactical communications course. On getting to Oki, the “Rock,” I met my Officer Basic School classmates who went infantry and shipped promptly to Nam after our May graduation. The Corps then was pulling out of active combat operations and had started transitioning units back to Okinawa.
The Rock then was a rough-edged place, but not nearly as rough as Vietnam, or Beirut in 1983, or any of the other bloody places Marines and the other services have been sent, ordered to do messy, impossible things. Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind. What stayed with us, those of us who came home, was the sense that if Americans are going to have Memorial Days and Veterans Days, let’s not pretty them up with stage lights and professional eloquence. The troops know, after all, that they collectively represent less than one percent of the U.S. population.
I get weary of the polite crowd applause for the dozen or so active-duty service personnel given free passes to big-league ball games. They stand and wave, then sit, and that’s that. The rest of the crowd moves on. But I recall my days on Okinawa and my Third Division buddies. It was a different time, close to fifty years ago. The men and women serving today have better equipment. But really nothing has changed. Every day, in every place, they’re looking at the abiding truth of service: things can get ugly quickly, they may never go home.
The quiet rituals of Quantico leave out the hoopla, the parade, the TV cameras. The local folks knew the truth of service better than how to stage a show. In that wooded corner of Virginia they offer the prayers, the callouts to the vets, the moment of Taps. Duty and sacrifice sums it up. Honor the flag and the fallen. Call it Memorial Day.