Be quiet and respectful, here patriots rest.
--Excerpt from The Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863
With these words, our President dedicated one of the first national cemeteries in our country's history. There are now 147 national cemeteries run by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of the Army, and the National Park Service. There are also more than 105 state veterans cemeteries run by the individual states and territories in which they lie. Though they share designations, these cemeteries memorialize different pasts and presents. To decide which path interpretation of these veterans cemeteries takes, one has to understand what they represent.
At Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery outside St. Louis, Lincoln's vision is realized with over 344 acres of consecrated ground honoring America's men and women who selflessly served their country. Jefferson Barracks holds many veterans as well as their spouses and dependent children, with tens of thousands of graves dating all the way back to the first burial held there in 1827--the child of an officer who was stationed at the barracks military base.
From this child's grave, an additional 180,000 more have been laid to rest over the years, including some 3,255 unknown soldiers. The Daughters of the American Revolution regularly visit and care for these permanent residents "known but to God," and when I was there on a chilly December day in 2011, each of the unknown soldiers' graves was decorated with a single bright red poinsettia. The gesture was simple and stark, a solemn statement of promise that America would never forget the sacrifices of brave individuals whose families never learned their fates. This bright red visual stood out among the snow and white marble and was simply breathtaking.
In another section of the cemetery lies possibly the most visited unknown soldier at Jefferson Barracks--First Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie. You may be wondering why I have named an unknown, but Lieutenant Blassie was, in fact, first interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. There he remained as the Vietnam War's Unknown until DNA testing confirmed his identity some 26 years and two days after he was shot down in the vicinity of An Loc, South Vietnam. This positive identification allowed Lieutenant Blassie to be reunited with his family and brought home to St. Louis to be reinterred at Jefferson Barracks.
I visited him and the other Unknowns in Arlington when I was 13, where I was overcome by the changing of the guard, the honored silence of visitors, and what the tomb represented. I have never forgotten their interpretation of sacrifice and of a nation's grief, and I knew it was important for me to see Lieutenant Blassie again to pay my respects as an adult. I took about 15 minutes graveside to think about this young man, a 24-year-old Air Force Academy graduate with his whole life before him. He never had the chance to marry or raise a family, but his sacrifice some 40 years ago ensured that I would have those opportunities. I knelt down and placed my hand on his stone and cried for him, cried for this nation that had lost him so many years ago. When I opened my eyes and looked up I was surrounded by white granite stretching as far as I could see in every direction--the stark reminder of all the other men and women just like him laid out before me silently screaming about duty, honor, sacrifice, freedom, liberty, and opportunity. Though a different interpretation than that of Arlington, at this point in my life it was more meaningful to me.
No one has to explain the significance of this site or of the other veterans cemeteries and battlefields in this country. There is no ambiguity about establishing "so what" with tens of thousands of gravesites laid out before you in every direction. Interpretation at Jefferson Barracks is innate, and definitely the most personal of nonpersonal interpretation I will ever experience. People who visit the site have come for many different reasons: to grieve, to feel again, to connect to something, to remember. Whatever the personal reasons visitors have for coming, they all leave with the same feeling, that Jefferson Barracks is an important place laid out by Lincoln almost 140 years ago for them, the living.
My trip to Jefferson Barracks was an important part of training for my position as assistant cemetery manager of the brand-new Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery at Birdeye. I left there with an understanding of the importance of place--both there and at my site. On the drive home I thought again of Lincoln and the rest of his speech given that cold November day in Pennsylvania:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Much like First Lieutenant Blassie ensured my freedom that May day in 1972, Lincoln laid out my complete interpretation plan some 140 years ago on that battlefield. The entire speech lasted just two minutes but has endured well over a century, a testament to the weight of his words and importance of the subject matter. This speech permeates everything at Birdeye, from design to implementation to interpretive planning and care for perpetuity.
When designing the new cemetery, architects focused heavily on the unspoken words of sacrifice. There is a magnificent avenue of flags at the entrance. A memorial wall for service members lost or buried at sea is located on the memorial walk adjacent to the bronze Gettysburg Address plaque. Elsewhere on site, reflecting ponds, created for moments of peaceful introspection, double as irrigation sources for the cemetery throughout the summer months. Designers rallied to keep mighty 200-year-old oak trees through construction, including the Arkansas state champion southern red oak tree. Landscape architects carefully and purposely shaped the land so that anywhere and everywhere visitors are at Birdeye they see native wildflowers and grasses, magnificent trees, and wildlife. The Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery at Birdeye is simply understated and beautiful, the embodiment of Lincoln's speech laid out in nature.
Our first funeral service was held February 15, 2012, and Air Force honor guard folded and presented the flag to the next of kin, stating, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the Department of the Air Force, and a grateful nation, we offer this flag for the faithful and dedicated service of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Chester Blake. God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America." From this first interment forward, the interpretation of this sacred place will be one that is due Colonel Blake, Lieutenant Blassie, and every other veteran who honorably served this nation.
As Governor Mike Beebe stated, "They will rest where the sunrise quickly dries the dew and where the sunset, because of Crowley's Ridge, shades the afternoon heat. It is a magnificent place." The Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery at Birdeye is dedicated to the men and women who answered our nation's call at home and around the world. The sacrifices laid upon the altar of freedom will never be diminished or forgotten. Be silent and respectful; here patriots rest.
Mary Anne Parker is assistant cemetery manager of Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery at Birdeye. Reach her at MaryAnne.Parker@arkansas.gov.
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|Author:||Parker, Mary Anne|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2012|
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