Hap Alexander column: Visit to Arlington stirs deep emotions
Third in a periodic series
My wife, Suzanne, and I went to Alexandria, Va., and visited Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial last week. When we got off the Metro subway at the station located right along the road leading to the cemetery entrance, we noticed two long rows of parked cars and motorcycles and lots of folks along the route leading to the National Cemetery. Then, from farther down the road, we saw blue lights on police motorcycles as an escort for a hearse came into view followed by a long procession of black cars, Rolling Thunder motorcycles with flags flying and more blue lights. The cars that had been parked along the avenue joined in to form quite a procession. Anyone in uniform along the route snapped to attention and saluted as the hearse and procession passed by.
We learned later, that it was the funeral for a local soldier killed in Afghanistan. I stood at attention facing the procession with my hat over my heart and tears rolling down my cheeks.
Now understand, that we had only been off of the Metro for ten minutes! That was quite a start for our visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where we intended to visit the grave site of Maj. Paul E. Getchell, a former MIA in Vietnam whose remains were located last year. I had worn a bracelet bearing his name for almost 40 years. The cemetery is filled with sights and sounds of the lives and deaths of those who served, so that we can enjoy the lives that we lead now.
We did locate Major Getchell’s grave site, and I took a tracing of his name from the headstone. After an emotional visit there, we proceeded to tour the remainder of the cemetery. While we watched a wreath-placing ceremony and the changing of the guard at the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier and the playing of taps, we heard from way off in the distance the 21-gun salute for the young soldier whose funeral procession we had witnessed earlier.
Yes, more tears, and I was not alone.
From the cemetery we walked across the Potomac River bridge into Washington past the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a wall etched with the names of more than 58,000 service men and women lost in the Vietnam War. I took another tracing of Major Getchell’s name, which was etched into the wall. There was a cross next to his name that had been filled in with a diamond to denote that he had been found and was no longer missing in action. I was impressed at the large number of others visiting the wall, but what impressed me most were the young families looking for the names of loved ones … and holding up little children to see their grandfather’s name … and touching the names … and the quiet respect … and the tears.
We found Fredrick Christman’s name on the wall, and I took another tracing.
So many of you have asked if Mrs. Getchell has returned the bracelet to me. Well, she has not, but I am happy to know that she has it and that she knows where it has been all of these years. That POW/MIA bracelet, which I wore to pay tribute and to never forget and to impress upon young folks of the sacrifices of so many, played the bigger role of bringing me to the Hallowed Ground of Arlington and the Vietnam Memorial Wall, where I gained a renewed appreciation for the freedom that we all enjoy.
There were 30 funerals in Arlington National Cemetery on that Monday.
We must never forget.
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Former Salisbury resident Hap Alexander lives in Topsail Beach.