I didn’t know I had a great-grandfather buried at Arlington National Cemetery until the day I graduated from college. I had actually graduated early and already moved from Baltimore to Washington, DC, where I was in graduate school. My parents had come to town and we had had a full day of graduation activities, and we had visited Arlington Cemetery. We called my grandparents and my grandmother said, “Oh, did you visit my father’s grave?”
This was news to him. His grandfather had died in 1936, long before he was born. In fact, my father was named after his mother’s father, George Gray, who had been a decorated Marine Corps veteran of World War I.
I lived in DC for a few years after learning he was there, and went back to visit occasionally. He is buried way, way out on the perimeter of the park; most of the others buried in his section were interred in the early 1900’s. The Tourmobile does not take you to Section 17.
At some point it occurred to me that I should ask if they would let me pay for a new headstone. My great-grandfather’s headstone was the standard-issue type that you see at most military graveyards – simple white marble, with the name, religious symbol, date of death and branch of service etched into the stone. The first time I found his grave, you could barely read his name or the number on the back. This is the headstone next to my great-grandfather’s, and the condition is very similar to what his looked like when I first found him.
So I went to the office inside the Visitors’ Center that assists families of those buried at Arlington and asked if I could pay for a new headstone. “No, just give us his plot number,” I was told, “and we’ll take care of it.” It hadn’t occurred to me that they would replace it simply because I asked.
I left DC in 1994 and though I’ve been back several times, I haven’t always had time to visit Arlington. I was in Baltimore and DC last weekend, and worked my schedule around finding an hour to go back. I had to go to the family center again, because it’s been awhile, and though I had a general recollection of where my great-grandfather was, I probably would have gotten lost trying to find him. I was saddened to see that there was a line at the family center; so many more of our men and women have been buried at Arlington over the last 10 years. I wondered a bit if the woman who had to scroll through microfiche to find George Gray’s plot number thought it was strange that I was asking about someone who died in 1936. I know she thought it was strange that I was walking there – it’s probably about a 1.5-mile walk to Section 17.
And there he was, right where I left him last time I visited. About 7 rows from the back of the cemetery; you can literally see an off-site road right behind this section. It seems as if other headstones may have been recently replaced; the headstones in this section didn’t seem quite so dilapidated as I remember from my last visit.
It was a beautiful fall day – my father’s birthday in fact – when I visited. And it’s never a bad time to say thank you to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country.