When John Shroeder quoted President John Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address during the Sojourners’ Memorial Day service at the Alexandria National Cemetery, several people in the audience joined in. They spoke in unison, invoking Kennedy’s proclamation of American endurance.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill,” they said. “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Shroeder, a past president of Arlington Hall Chapter 440, was leading an American liturgy — a shared experience of thanksgiving that is the hallmark of Memorial Day. The origins of the holiday date back to May 5, 1868, when Union Gen. John Logan signed General Order No. 11. The document said that the day should be a way of “preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.”
“In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit,” the order said. “Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
THE ALEXANDRIA National Cemetery is the final resting place of hundreds of Union soldiers who died fighting the Confederacy. It includes more than 100 unknown soldiers, most of whom perished in 1862 when the Manassas train junction became the scene of unspeakable carnage. Since that time, other veterans have been added from every major conflict — and a select few gravesites are being reserved for the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The cost of freedom is here before us,” said Cheryln LeBon, a representative from the Veterans Administration who delivered the keynote address during the ceremony. “It’s buried in the ground.”
LeBon quoted from John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flander’s Field,” which she said summed up the honor of sacrifice and the dignity of freedom. She said that our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are spreading democracy in the Middle East, sparing future generations from the threat of terrorism — carrying on the work of the men and women who are now buried at the cemetery.
“We can never forget those who surround us here in quiet repose,” LeBon said. “We will never forget them.”