President Lays Wreath at Arlington Cemetery

On Memorial Day, President Bush honored those who have lost their lives fighting for the United States, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of presidential speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Today we honor the warriors who fought our nation's enemies, defended the cause of liberty, and gave their lives in the cause of freedom.

SIEGEL: President Bush marked Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery. The president spoke of Americans who died in wars past and present.

(Soundbite of presidential speech)

Pres. BUSH: Now this hallowed ground receives a new generation of heroes - men and women who gave their lives in places such as Kabul and Kandahar, Baghdad and Ramadi. Like those who came before them, they did not want war - but they answered the call when it came. They believed in something larger than themselves. They fought for our country, and our country unites to mourn them as one.

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'Flags In' at Arlington National Cemetery

Pfc. Gabriel Gonzales makes sure that Staff Sgt. William Peyton has enough flags in his rucksack. i i

hide captionPfc. Gabriel Gonzales (right) makes sure that Staff Sgt. William Peyton has a few rows' worth of flags in his rucksack.

Noah Adams, NPR
Pfc. Gabriel Gonzales makes sure that Staff Sgt. William Peyton has enough flags in his rucksack.

Pfc. Gabriel Gonzales (right) makes sure that Staff Sgt. William Peyton has a few rows' worth of flags in his rucksack.

Noah Adams, NPR
A flag in front of a headstone at the cemetery. i i

hide captionArlington National Cemetery holds graves of veterans from every American war, from the American Revolution through the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Noah Adams, NPR
A flag in front of a headstone at the cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery holds graves of veterans from every American war, from the American Revolution through the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Noah Adams, NPR
Flags line a section of Arlington National Cemetery on a hillside near the Tomb of the Unknowns. i i

hide captionFlags line a section of Arlington National Cemetery on a hillside near the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Noah Adams, NPR
Flags line a section of Arlington National Cemetery on a hillside near the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Flags line a section of Arlington National Cemetery on a hillside near the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Noah Adams, NPR

Today, as on each Memorial Day, there are flags flying in front of every grave at Arlington National Cemetery. More than 270,000 small flags were placed there Thursday afternoon. The Army calls it "Flags In" day.

It's a big military operation, conducted by the 3rd U.S. Infantry — known as the Old Guard, based at nearby Fort Myer.

About 3 p.m., when burials are finished for the day, trucks bring out big wooden crates and drop them off at each section of gravesites. The crates are full of flags, the wooden sticks still muddy from last year.

The flags have a sharp point on top and are pushed into the ground by hand, about a foot away from the front of each headstone.

Sgt. Jordan Ramsey's hands are protected by leather gloves, but he says he uses a Gatorade bottle cap to keep his palms from "getting stabbed."

One soldier says he prayed for rain to soften the ground, but his wish didn't materialize.

To help out with Flags In Day, other branches of the service have sent honor guards, but most of the flags are placed by The Old Guard.

It's Staff Sgt. Heather Tribble's third year on this duty.

"It's sad," she says. "Obviously, you see a lot of the older ones right next to some of the newer ones that we saw as we're going by — some that weren't there in our section last year. We do the same sections every year. It's kind of hard to think about it, but it's a nice thing to do for somebody."

About 6 p.m., an officer hears the faint notes of a bugle and calls his company to attention.

Taps is being played as part of a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns, on a hilltop at Arlington National Cemetery. By tradition, soldiers stand in respect at this sound.

As the day ends, Sgt. Michael Deems walks along with a pack of spare flags, making sure things look good. He's by himself and has a chance to think about this cemetery — the old graves and the new ones. He reads the headstones as he walks by them — graves of soldiers who have received the Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

"There's one right over there ... he died in Iraq," Deems says. "I was there, too ...."

On Tuesday, before Arlington National Cemetery opens to the public, members of the Old Guard will retrieve the flags and put them into storage for next year's Memorial Day.

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