Honor. Honor is what comes to mind, washes over you in powerful, humbling waves, catches you off guard – even as you know it may – when you enter sacred ground, choose to walk among the white stones of Arlington National Cemetery, row upon row unending. Last week found me doing that.
For an entire day, walking row after row, marker to marker, time meant next to nothing – and it meant next to everything. My day was one of thousands, warm, a light breeze. Theirs, their last day on earth, carefully engraved on each white stone, was given to me – and given to you.
For thousands upon thousands, their last day – their last sunrise, last meal, last breath they drew, last effort they expended – was spent for us, so we could live in peace. And then, their time ended.
The thought is almost too much to process. The last day on earth for many of these veterans – and most were young – was spent defending liberties, a way of life, principles, and the faith we so often take for granted, that we so fail to fully appreciate, and fail to thank them for. So, I came…to thank them.
I thanked those who died on the battlefields – places like Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Spotsylvania, and Antietam in the Civil War, Saint-Mihiel and Belleau Wood in WWI, then Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Anzio, Sicily, and the Bulge, or Iwo, Okinawa, Tarawa, Leyte Gulf, and Guadalcanal in WWII.
I thanked those who died at Chosin Reservoir, Pusan, Inchon, Naktong, Taejon, and Masan in Korea. I thanked those who died during Tet, at Khe Sanh, Lam Son, Dien Bien Phu, Hamburger Hill in Vietnam.
Looking at their gravestones, I thanked these boys who were barely 20, many in their early 20s, who went down in bombers over Europe and the Pacific, last moments terror in a broken up B-17, B-24, B-29, or a glider, fighter, or helicopter, the air, navy, and marine crews, infantry who gave all in WW I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, later Iraq, Afghanistan, and locations unnamed. They were so young.
Reading stone after stone, my heart went also to those who came home, lived to tell how their brothers fell, or never to tell, who lived with the guilt of living, some for decades, some who could not and died of the pain. You could tell, you can see it in the stones, feel it in your soul, and it hurts, forces a reckoning.
Twice that day, with time suspended, I silently watched The Old Guard change at the Tomb of Unknowns, young soldiers displaying extreme discipline, rifle inspection and footfalls to salutes. Five were men, one a woman. Each personified focus, intense dedication, power of honor – the honor of standing watch at the grave of those “known only to God,” who went to their Maker, no other marker on earth.
That ceremony put me in mind of a young man from Maine whose sister just died, in her 90s. She lived in my town, spent her last energies seeking her brother’s remains; he died in a firefight on the Solomon Islands, a US Marine. Another young man from my town won the DSC in Sicily, saved his entire company, never got home. The Arlington Guards – men and women of real honor – guard their honor, too.
From there, my day’s journey led me to graves of my grandfather and father, relatives gone before mine was a sentient soul, on to six good friends etched in stone who perished on 9-11. Finally, steady footfalls near end of day led to JFK, the eternal flame, and finally to the back of Section 60, a quiet section.
There, at the back of Section 60, was a simple white stone. From a distance, it was indistinguishable from any other in the cemetery. Under his name were five lines, “Gen US Army, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, APR 5, 1937, OCT 18, 2020.” That was it.
Nowhere on this stone does it say – although I knew it to be so – that here was a man of honor, who had survived helicopter crashes, two jungle tours in Vietnam, weathered indignities from racism to disrespect, been Ronald Reagan’s most trusted advisor on national security, helped bring down the Soviet Union, become a four-star, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, paragon of patience, Secretary of State.
None of that was on the stone, because to Colin Luther Powell, none of that mattered – as much as the chance to serve, an opportunity – in a phrase he used for others, to be “equal to his time.” Here was my old boss – a man whose entire life was built on service to country, on sacrifice and honor.
In the modern moment, we are quick to condemn, slow to praise. We get trigger happy with insults, derision, our own purity, judgment, surety. But these stones are where truth and humility lives, where you cannot come and be glib, where God speaks quietly, and if you hear Him much is suddenly expected.
That is why, as Memorial Day approaches, my heart drifted to this special place, and my feet followed. Here we are nothing, we are only what we will stop to understand, pick up and carry forward. Here, and before veterans’ graves, you feel the weight of what remains undone, the tick of time, privilege of living. More could be said, but need not be. We all know what resides on these memorial-dotted hillsides. There is a word for it, one that lifts, animates, and obligates – Honor.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.