Arlington National Cemetery: A Visit Worth Making

Changing of the Guard and a new wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Changing of the Guard and a new wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

When I took my son to Washington D.C. when he was 10 years -old, the age I was when I first visited D.C., we headed to Arlington National Cemetery for our last stop of our three-day vacation. I had images of my own Arlington experience etched in my memories that I wanted to share– in particular the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and John F. Kennedy’s grave.

There is a feeling of solemnity at both spots–a feeling of longing and loss. At age 10, I felt the weight of both of these places as significant markers in American history. I was also mesmerized by the constancy of each. At Kennedy’s grave, the Eternal Flame never goes out. At the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, military guards stand watch each day. Sharing these landmarks with my son before the threat of adolescent angst set in seemed like a perfect way to spend a sunny Sunday morning.

Changing of the Guard at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Changing of the Guard at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

We arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as people were gathering to watch the Changing of the Guard, a meticulously executed, white glove ceremony that happens every hour on the hour Oct. 1 to March 31, and every half hour April 1 through Sept. 30.

The sound of the soldiers’ shoes clicking across the concrete as they marched, and the precision of their movements as they changed the positions of their weapons are things not forgotten. The careful attention to these graves of four soldiers–one for each war: WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam, whose identities are not known, holds a certain comfort that these sons of mothers and fathers are being cared for day in and day out without fail. Along with the Changing of the Guard, we also witnessed a Public Wreath Laying ceremony where four high school students, along with soldiers assigned to this duty, placed a fresh wreath at the tomb.

The wall around JFK's grave
The wall around JFK’s grave

John F. Kennedy’s grave is another must see in this vast acreage where white tomb stones follow the dips and rises of the various sections in seemingly endless ribbons.

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Kennedy’s words that called out to Americans to take part in their country are forever etched in stone here. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and two of the Kennedy’s children–Patrick Bouvier who was an infant when he died and a stillborn daughter are also buried at this site. Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy are close by.

Because we only had an hour and a half to spend wandering Arlington National Cemetery’s grounds, we missed other sites that I hoped to get to, particularly the Women in Military Service to America Memorial.   We did start our visit at the Welcome Center, something I recommend. Here you’ll find maps, a gift shop, an overview of the cemetery and special exhibits.

Ribbons of graves
Ribbons of graves

We hoofed it from the parking lot near the Welcome Center to each of the sites which was a bit of a hike.

If I had planned ahead, I’d have purchased a guided tour. Tram type bus tours depart from the Welcome Center. This is where you can buy tickets for the tour. You can also purchase tram tickets online.

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, VA 22211

Hours:  7 Days a week: 365 days
8am – 7pm (April – September)
8am – 5pm (October – March)

Parking garage closes 1 hour after cemetery

Post and photos courtesy of Jamie Rhein, member of Midwest Travel Writers Association