The following is adapted from a speech delivered on April 9, 2019, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C. by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas. Senator Cotton served deployments in Iraq with the 101st Airborne and in Afghanistan with a Provincial Reconstruction Team. His military decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, and Ranger Tab.
Every headstone at Arlington tells a story. These are tales of heroes, I thought, as I placed the toe of my combat boot against the white marble. I pulled a miniature American flag out of my assault pack and pushed it three inches into the ground at my heel. I stepped aside to inspect it, making sure it met the standard that we had briefed to our troops: “vertical and perpendicular to the headstone.” Satisfied, I moved to the next headstone to keep up with my soldiers. Having started this row, I had to complete it. One soldier per row was the rule; otherwise, different boot sizes might disrupt the perfect symmetry of the headstones and flags. I planted flag after flag, as did the soldiers on the rows around me.
Bending over to plant the flags brought me eye-level with the lettering on those marble stones. The stories continued with each one. Distinguished Service Cross. Silver Star. Bronze Star. Purple Heart. America’s wars marched by. Iraq. Afghanistan. Vietnam. Korea. World War II. World War I. Some soldiers died in very old age; others were teenagers. Crosses, Stars of David, Crescents and Stars. Every religion, every race, every age, every region of America is represented in these fields of stone.
I came upon the gravesite of a Medal of Honor recipient. I paused, came to attention, and saluted. The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest decoration for battlefield valor. By military custom, all soldiers salute Medal of Honor recipients irrespective of their rank, in life and in death. We had reminded our soldiers of this courtesy; hundreds of grave sites would receive salutes that afternoon. I planted this hero’s flag and kept moving.
In just a few hours, we had placed a flag at every grave site in this sacred ground, more than two hundred thousand of them. From President John F. Kennedy to the Unknown Soldiers to the youngest privates from our oldest wars, every hero of Arlington had a few moments that day with a soldier who, in this simple act of remembrance, delivered a powerful message to the dead and the living alike: you are not forgotten.
The Thursday before Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery is known as “Flags In.” The soldiers who place the flags belong to the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, better known as The Old Guard.
Since 1948, when The Old Guard became the Army’s ceremonial unit and official escort to the president, it has marched in inaugural parades, performed ceremonies at the White House and the Pentagon, and provided color guards and a drill team for events around the capital, among other missions. But one mission takes priority above all else: military-honor funerals in Arlington National Cemetery. In manning, in training, in operating, funerals always come first, and they are a no-fail, zero-defect mission. While we often performed more than 20 funerals a day, we knew that—for the fallen and the family—each funeral was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, a lifetime in the making.
No matter how often we conducted funerals—and most of us performed hundreds of them—the pressure to achieve perfection for the fallen and their families never relented. Lieutenant Colonel Allen Kehoe, the battalion commander in charge of Old Guard funerals, has served in the 75th Ranger Regiment and is a five-time combat veteran. Yet he told me, “I’ve never experienced pressure like this anywhere else in the Army.” He paused and added, “I know that sounds crazy.” Perhaps to some, but not to me, and not to his soldiers. We felt the same pressure every day in Arlington, the pressure to perform our sacred duty to honor America’s heroes.
Old Guard companies have industrial-quality press machines in their barracks to achieve razor-sharp pant creases. We measured uniform insignia out to one-sixty-fourth of an inch. Sitting down in uniform between funerals was prohibited to avoid wrinkles. We prepared for funerals in sweltering summer heat, winter blizzards, and driving rain. Even when inclement weather shuts down the cemetery, it does not stop The Old Guard from performing funerals on time and to standard.
Each morning, casket teams practiced folding the flag, even though they had folded thousands of them. Firing parties practiced their three-volley salute, seven rifles cracking as one in the parking lot. In the cemetery, we talked through the key sequences and cues before each funeral, sometimes conducting the very same talk-through six times in a day. Nothing was taken for granted.
For rare or complex funerals, The Old Guard goes to even greater lengths. I participated once in a group burial for twelve soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq. We rehearsed it for several days. Last year, The Old Guard dedicated the newest 27 acres of the cemetery by laying to rest two unknown Civil War soldiers whose remains were recently discovered at the battlefield of the Second Battle of Bull Run. The soldiers involved rehearsed the mission six times. Researchers believe, incidentally, that the two soldiers may have died from wounds suffered during the Union’s failed assault on the third and final day of the battle—an assault in which The Old Guard participated.
Arlington is not the only site of The Old Guard’s mission to honor our fallen. Since the earliest days of the Iraq War, The Old Guard has performed the dignified transfer of remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where our nation’s fallen soldiers return home for the last time.
These poignant moments at Dover, like The Old Guard’s unflagging dedication to our fallen at Arlington, tell not only a story about our war dead and the soldiers who honor them, but also a story about the nation on whose behalf they serve. We go to great lengths to recover fallen comrades, we honor them in the most precise and exacting ceremonies, we set aside national holidays to remember and celebrate them. We do these things for them, of course, but also for us, the living. Their stories of heroism, of sacrifice, and of patriotism remind us of what is best in ourselves, and they teach our children what is best in America.
In doing so, we assure our fighting men and women around the world that they, too, will be remembered in death and their families will be cared for, a mutual pledge that shaped our identity as soldiers and our willingness to fight—and, if necessary, to die—for our country. “It is well that war is so terrible,” observed Robert E. Lee as he watched his army slaughter Union troops at Fredericksburg, “or we should grow too fond of it.” No one understands that lesson better than the soldiers who have fought our wars on the front lines and the soldiers who have honored the sacrifices of our fallen at places like Arlington and Dover. We know that sometimes our nation must wage war to defend all that we hold dear, but we also know the terrible costs inflicted by war.
No one summed up better what The Old Guard of Arlington means for our nation than Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey. He shared a story with me about taking a foreign military leader through Arlington to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Sergeant Major Dailey said, “I was explaining what The Old Guard does and he was looking out the window at all those headstones. After a long pause, still looking at the headstones, he said, ‘Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You take better care of your dead than we do our living.’”
Memorial Day is a not a memorial of granite or marble. It is a memorial made of flesh and blood – a living memorial. We as Americans are that living memorial to the men and women who fought and died for us.
The final stanza of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae perfectly describes what is at the heart of this living memorial:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
And this Memorial Day weekend, let us remember these men and women sacrificed their lives to keep that the torch of liberty burning. And now that torch is ours to hold high.
Let us not break faith with those who died.
Let us remember and honor them.
Because though they may not have seen themselves as heroes, to the grateful nation for which they died, they most certain are.