On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I stayed in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Va.
One evening I decided to go running. I ran past the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial and into the back gate of Fort Myer. This is home of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, the Old Guard, whose members guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 24/7 at Arlington National Cemetery.
This brought back memories both good and sad. I was fortunate to spend the summer of 1988 at the Pentagon as a speechwriter intern to the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Carl Vuono, often traveling with him, accompanying him to testify on Capitol Hill, and to full-honors arrival ceremonies at Fort Myer for visiting foreign dignitaries.
More recently, in 2004 I attended the funeral of West Point friend and classmate Tim Brooks, who died of a brain tumor while serving at Fort Myer, which entitled him to burial at Arlington.
Classmates came from all over the country to attend his touching Catholic funeral mass at Fort Myer's post chapel. We then walked behind the horse-drawn caisson into the National Cemetery. Tim was laid to rest next door to Navy Adm. James Boorda. If you have never visited Arlington National Cemetery or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you must when you visit Washington, D.C. Even on their school trips to D.C., I've taken time out to visit my friend's grave at Arlington with my daughters.
From the spit-and-polish ceremonies of the military district of Washington (MDW) to the grit and grime of war zones, I'm reminded of my father-in-law, Heinz Dittmar, the son of German immigrants, who had immigrated to the USA in 1926. Fluent in German, he served in the U.S. Army in Italy toward the end of World War II, where he helped process Nazi prisoners of war.
Only recently did my father-in-law tell us that his father, my wife's Grandpa Dittmar, had served in the Kaiser's Imperial Army during World War I, had been taken as a POW by the Russian czar's Army, and sent to Siberia. No wonder he and his wife fled the inflation and turmoil of Germany's short-lived Weimar Republic and came to the USA.
Just as my father-in-law served in World War II, so, too, did my late grandfather, Bill Burkman, who was in the U.S. Navy Construction Battalions (the Seabees). In November 1990, he and my late grandmother, Naomi Burkman, attended my graduation from the German program at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.
Afterward we drove beautiful Highway 1 south past Big Sur, down central California's rugged coastline to Port Hueneme, home of the Seabee Museum, which he had never visited before. At the entrance, my grandpa was asked his unit number.
The guide took us to a yearbook that had all black Seabees. This was from a time before units of our armed forces were integrated. My grandpa was one digit off for his unit number. We eventually found his correct unit number's yearbook. Sure enough, there were a couple of photos of him inside. In looking through his yearbook, I was to discover that my grandpa, a man of few words, was known to his unit as “the Silent Swede.” His unit built naval facilities in Trinidad and was even once chased all night by a German U-boat.
From his Seabee duty, Grandpa Burkman learned his trade, construction. He eventually made his way to New Castle, where he started two successful businesses, Quality Concrete & Tile Co. and Burkman Construction Co.
From row upon row of “gardens of stone” in our national cemeteries, to Ellis Island, through which my wives' grandparents and other immigrants passed, these form part of our forefathers' successful experiment that became the USA.
Let's remember all who have served, and to paraphrase Isaiah 40:31, may the Lord raise up on eagle's wings those who still serve.