WASHINGTON, June 16, 2014 - Army Secretary John M. McHugh praised the fallen from the nation's wars last night during a commemoration of Arlington National Cemetery's 150th anniversary in the cemetery's amphitheater.
McHugh conveyed gratitude and historical context during the event, "Arlington at 150," which featured a musical performance by "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band as well as participation from the U.S. Army "Old Guard" 3rd Infantry Regiment and historical vignettes depicting how conflicts have molded the nation.
"It is clearly fitting that these hallowed grounds look out over our nation's capital city, a symbol of all that America has achieved," McHugh said. Each headstone, every neatly aligned row, [is] a reminder of the men and women who served and sacrificed, ... who turned the ideas of the Washingtons, the Jeffersons and the Lincolns into a reality, into a birthright for generations for those to follow."
However with such birthright, McHugh explained, comes great sacrifice.
"To stroll these grounds is truly to walk through pages of American history," McHugh said, noting that the locale reminds visitors of the horrors of America's bloodiest conflict, the Civil War.
He recounted that the cemetery was born of necessity, that the Arlington National Cemetery property was acquired as a spoil of war when Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs pressed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on the need for a national cemetery as the war dead mounted.
On June 15, 1864, he said, Stanton authorized the conversion of the property, which had been the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, into America's first national cemetery. "Throughout the Civil War, the burials averaged 40 a day here, with some 19,000 honored war dead laid to rest by century's end," the Army secretary said.
The first repatriated remains arrived in 1898, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, marking the start of the Spanish-American War.
"Its lost sailors were brought to these grounds to be honored and remembered as were other Americans," McHugh said. "Soon thereafter, a cemetery born of necessity became the military's most pre-eminent military shrine -- the resting place of veterans and heroes from all of America's conflicts throughout our nation's now 238-year history."
A century ago, Arlington became a place not only of remembrance, but also one of reconciliation, McHugh said, noting that President Woodrow Wilson dedicated the monument to the Confederate dead here in 1914, declaring that chapter of U.S. history closed.
Wilson reminded all that "it is our duty and our privilege to be like the country we represent, stand shoulder to shoulder to lift the burdens of mankind in the future and show the paths of freedom to all the world," McHugh said.
And Americans accepted the challenge, he added, with many leaving their homes and farms to take to the battlefields of Europe during World War I.
"To this day, it remains clear watching the visitors who gaze in respectful silence as the ever-present soldiers of the Old Guard mark the ceremonial 21-paces before the Tomb of the Unknown, our nation and its people continue to remember, continue to respect, the service and the sacrifice of our nation's nameless fallen."
But McHugh said the special setting also serves as a painful reminder that much of America's history is still in progress. "Nowhere is that more evident ... than America's saddest acre, Section 60," he said. McHugh explained that over the last 13 years, while the nation's fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have been laid to rest at Arlington, Section 60 stands apart.
"It has come to represent all those lost, all the sacrifice, all the pain, as well, all the pride," he said, noting that the toll of burials marches on. "While the number of those lost from the current conflict mercifully recedes," he added, "the number of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam continue to mount at an ever-increasing rate."
McHugh also reminded visitors that not all of the nation's enemies have worn a uniform. He said that among the honored dead lie victims of various terrorist attacks in the United States and overseas.
"The United States Army recognizes the tremendous honor ... we have been given to care for, to honor, each and every one of the fallen -- whether having fought our wars or preserved the peace, every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman answered our nation's call to duty, and as such has earned this nation's highest honor and our enduring respect."
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