Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, one of those rare world-changing events that actually live up to such a phrase. Last night, 70 years to the moment that our transports were approaching Normandy and paratroopers were dropping behind enemy lines; Share Our Strength was part of a small group participating in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
We were the only nonprofit included among Washington’s most prominent business leaders. We’d been invited by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, in no small part due to their great respect for our colleague Tamra McGraw. I like to also think they recognize Share Our Strength for a different but important form of service to our nation. Our host was Major General Jeffrey Buchanan who served with both the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101 Airborne and is currently Commanding General of the Military District of Washington DC.
General Buchanan and his colleagues explained the rigorous commitment of the “tomb sentinels” who comprise the 24 hour a day honor guard. They volunteer for the assignment despite being held to almost impossibly high standards. They are measured on more than 100 criteria from the crease in their slacks to the alignment of their eyes. If anything is more than 1/64th of an inch off they are cited for a deficiency. Two deficiencies means being taken off honor guard duty.
In 1984, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, General Buchanan was then a young soldier selected to parachute on to Omaha beach in commemoration of the Americans who gave their lives to liberate France and turn the tide of World War II. He paused to gaze at Arlington’s 400,000 graves behind him. “This really is sacred ground” he said with a sweep of his hand. He asked that we think about those men today. And he reminded us that from General Eisenhower on down, no one had any idea or guarantee, how things would turn out.
When the ceremony ended around 6:00, I excused myself from dinner with General Buchanan and the Board of Trade and instead walked the deserted roads to Section 60 which is reserved for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other wide of the cemetery, far from the crowd of veterans, tourists and others who had gathered at our wreath laying ceremony, only two small families of four or five huddled together around gravestones about 50 yards apart.
From a distance they could barely be distinguished among the field of white headstones, but as one got closer you could see their arms around each other’s shoulders and heads bowed. Sacrifice and faith and honoring memory were not history lessons for them, so much as the oxygen they breathe. I had walked over to visit one grave in particular, the son of a family friend, but two hours later as the sun set I was still standing among them all.