If I only had one minute with each of them

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
In the spring of 2001, I made my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

I was attending some training at Fort Meade, Md., at the time and during one of the weekends I was there, I went with a classmate to see this famed cemetery of heroes.

It's a big place where you can see rows upon rows of white grave stones marking the landscape. The day I was there, it was a sunny spring day with blossoms blooming brightly in the morning sunshine.

The first sight of it really struck me because it felt somewhat ironic. Here new life was springing from the trees which lay dormant all winter long, yet they were amidst the remains of heroes who gave their lives to our country's freedom so we all could enjoy the life we have. Even years later I can still smell how those blossoms permeated the air.

I arrived there right around 10 a.m. I didn't see any funerals take place, but I didn't need to because I knew all I needed to know just by looking at each of the grave stones. It was a process that ended up taking my whole day.

Each step I took felt as though I was walking amongst the most hallowed ground anywhere. It felt like I shouldn't walk, but freeze where I stood. It seemed to me that even leaving a blade of grass out of place was disrespectful. However, I forged on.

I stopped and read the inscription on the first grave and it was that of an Army first lieutenant who died in World War I. It had been a long time since World War I had ended. It was from that war where we got Veterans Day. It comes from Nov. 11, 1918, where major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the German signing of the Armistice.

The grave stone showed the lieutenant died before the war had ended. That's when I had a thought - how awesome would it be to sit down with this lieutenant and hear his story if only for a minute? This lieutenant could tell me things about his life, his family, his military training at West Point, and who know what else. It actually made me think of this person in life rather than in death.

As I slowly walked among the hundreds and hundreds of head stones, I had the same thought run through my head - if only I had a minute with each of them, what could they tell me?

On one head stone, I saw the name of Navy man who died at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1945. In another spot, I saw a Revolutionary War general. And across the way, I saw heroes from the 1982 Beirut terrorist bombing and veterans of Operation Desert Storm. Oh, for just one minute, how enlightening it would be to hear their stories. I imagined it would be that of great history and heroism.

After about seven hours, I left Arlington a changed man. For one thing, it was a great honor to see this hallowed place where so many of our nation's heroes are buried. It was also a great learning experience, because I left there knowing what incredible people our nation has produced while not only creating our nation, but defending it as well.

Since then, in every cemetery I go to, I've searched out the grave stones of the military veterans who are buried there. I've never found a cemetery yet where there isn't at least one. And when I look upon the stone, I still ask that same question to myself - what would it be like to have one minute with them?

Fortunately, even though I can imagine what it might be like to talk to these heroes, their legacy lives on through others. In the United States, there are millions of veterans who are still alive and most likely have a minute to spare to tell their story. Every time I run across a veteran, I ask them what their story is and then I thank them. I've learned so much by doing that.

This Veterans Day, and every day, I encourage you to take the time to remember our nation's veterans. Their stories and their life's contribution to defending our nation are worth a minute of anyone's time.