Veterans troop to Arlington in quiet salute to a distant war

Gold Star father Dan McLaughlin, whose son was killed in Iraq, joined about 200 American Legion members at the ceremony. credit: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson

They entered Arlington National Cemetery at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, their motorcycles, and the noise of the holiday weekend, left outside.

Preceded by two bagpipers, they filed in quietly, many in black leather vests, sunglasses and ball caps.

Dan McLaughlin, 75, of Tionesta, Pennsylvania., whose son, Michael, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, was killed in Iraq, was among them.

So was Gina Townsend, 51, of Gainesville, Virginia, whose late father was given the Medal of Honor for gallantry in Vietnam.

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About 200 men and women representing American Legion posts from across the country, and several modern wars, came to salute the fallen of a distant war.

They gathered at the cemetery’s Civil War Unknowns Monument, the original Tomb of the Unknowns, and the site of the first official Memorial Day commemoration in 1868.

Relatives of men who had died at places such as Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006, and Hue, Vietnam, in 1968, came to salute men who had been killed in places such as Manassas in 1861 and 1862.

They traveled from legion posts in Panama City, Florida; Goose Creek, South Carolina; and Glenarden, Maryland, wearing caps that said they had served on the USS Midway, or with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

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As they walked to the tomb along the cemetery’s Meigs Drive, they passed near the graves of Col. Edgar O’Connor, who died in 1862 at age 29 at the Civil War’s Battle of Groveton, and Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, who was killed at Chantilly (Virginia) the same year.

The tomb holds 2,111 unknown soldiers whose remains were gathered from battlefields around Manassas and elsewhere at the close of the war. Most of them had been unburied and left behind as the tide of the war ebbed and flowed.

They were laid to rest in a specially built mass tomb adjacent to the Arlington Mansion, which gave the cemetery its name. Almost half of the soldiers killed in the Civil War were never identified, according to the National Park Service.

The tomb was sealed in September 1866, and the first official Memorial Day ceremony was held there in May 1868, the Park Service said.

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The keynote speaker that day was future president and then-Brig. Gen. James A. Garfield.

“Here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered; here let them rest, asleep in the nation’s heart,” he told the crowd.

“This will be forever the sacred mountain of our capital,” he said. “Here is our temple, its sacrament is the sarcophagus of the heroic hearts; its dome the bending of heavens; its altar candles the watching stars.”

“Hither our children’s children shall come to pay their tribute of grateful homage,” he said.

Today the site gets little attention from those eager to see Arlington’s better-known Tomb of the Unknowns, which dates to 1921, and the graves of President John F. Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Edward.

There are no crowds, no changing of the guard, no eternal flame.

But Saturday the legionnaires and their comrades stood before the Civil War dead in the shadow of a great oak tree. As officials laid a wreath of remembrance, and a bugler sounded taps, there was a sense of pride and sorrow that spanned 150 years.

“To know that people are remembering my son, that’s the important part,” Dan McLaughlin said as he stood by the tomb, wearing the Gold Star symbol of loss that goes back to World War I.

“They’re not forgetting him,” he said.

The younger McLaughlin was killed Jan. 5, 2006, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Ramadi. Michael McLaughlin had been working there to recruit Iraqis for a police force when the bomber approached.

An Army bomb dog smelled the explosives as the man neared and attacked him, but the bomber detonated his device before the soldiers could react, Dan McLaughlin said.

His son was struck at the base of the skull and went down. When others rushed to help him to safety, the younger McLaughlin said, “You take care of my guys; I’m OK,” his father said.

“He turned and dropped dead,” he said. “And that was the end of it.”

Gina Townsend’s father, Army Staff Sgt. Clifford C. Sims, was a 25-year-old squad leader engaged in heavy combat with the enemy near Hue on Feb. 21, 1968.

Fighting in dense woods, Sims and his men heard an explosive device being triggered, according to Sims’s Medal of Honor citation.

Sims shouted a warning to his men and threw himself on the device, which blew up, killing him.

“This is a first for me,” Townsend said, as she stood by the tomb. “It is very eye-opening. For years, we didn’t talk about it in our family, because it was the Vietnam War and it wasn’t a talked-about war.”

A sixth-grade teacher, she said she often takes students to visit the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. “We teach them all about what happened there,” she said. “And this [tomb] is right here. This was the original.”

Below the wreath of red and white flowers and blue ribbons that had been placed at the foot of the tomb, an inscription in the stone read:

Their remains could not be identified, but their names and deaths are recorded in the archives of their country: And its grateful citizens honor them as of their noble army of martyrs.