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Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Honoring those who gave all

It had been years, but I figured the marker would be easy enough to find.

I knew my father was buried, at most, 100 yards from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near a small stand of trees.

On a Sunday day eight days before Memorial Day, Arlington National Cemetery was crowded with students on field trips before the summer break. Included in the crowd were a couple of bus loads of World War II veterans, all of whom were getting an honor guard greeting at the Unknown Soldier’s monument.

Arlington spreads over nearly 700 rolling acres below the stately home where Robert E. Lee’s family once lived. It is stunning — not only in its visual effect but in the emotions it generates.

I actually was a little turned off when the first thing we saw was a sign saying to be sure to take our parking tickets to an automated machine in the visitor’s center. Somehow asking people to pay to park at this place seems a little cheap. You then can buy tickets to take a tram around the grounds. I don’t know; things are tight in this country, but there are times when a little class wouldn’t hurt.

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More than 400,000 American heroes are buried here, and 30 or 40 more are added every day.

As you walk the pathways, you can hear rifle shots and bugles in the distance as more veterans come home.

The two most popular spots on the grounds are the grave of John F. Kennedy and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

But this is — as you are reminded at the visitors’ center — sacred ground. The impact of seeing the white tombstones laid out in military order across the hills in every direction reminds you that so many Americans have given so much for our country.

For a similar experience, I suggest driving up to Florida National Cemetery, just off Interstate 75 near Bushnell. You will be changed.

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Meanwhile, we went looking for my father, who I knew was in section 35, a hike of about 1 mile, wending through the fields of white tombstones. There is one overlook that gives a view of the Capitol in the distance, and you remember that this spot originally was held by Confederate soldiers at the beginning of the war. The Confederates left peacefully when confronted by Union solders, days before the coming struggle that would rip a nation apart.

We came to my father’s section, and I looked across at the sea of markers, realizing this might not be easy. There must have been 1,000 laid out in rows on a gentle hill.

We walked up and down the rows, mesmerized by the names on the markers, until the Frau realized each tombstone had an identifying number and that by going onto a computer you could pin down the exact location of each marker. I called home, and our son relayed the number back, taking us to my father’s grave.

Standing there, you could hear another series of rifle shots echoing across the hills and the mournful sound of taps.

I hope we are all able to take a few moments this weekend to remember not only those who gave their lives to our country but of those lives and dreams that never will be fulfilled.

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