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Make a promise to visit this place

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 10:26 PM EST, Tue November 8, 2011
A man visits Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60, which is for those who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
A man visits Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60, which is for those who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: There's a place in Washington that isn't a top tourist spot
  • He says Arlington National Cemetery is a place all Americans should visit
  • More than 300,000 are bured at Arlington, including the famous
  • Greene says to visit Arlington is to realize the meaning of serving your country

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War."

(CNN) -- As we head into a workweek that ends with a federal holiday on Friday, you can expect the usual:

Newspaper, television and Internet advertisements touting special sales and slashed prices on selected items. Veterans Day has become an annual opportunity for merchandisers -- many of them see the holiday as a chance to get a jump on Black Friday, the day-after-Thanksgiving bacchanalia of bust-down-the-doors sales pushes.

It's hard to blame the merchants. The economy has been dismal. Anything that might bring shoppers into stores is seen as a plus.

But before the Veterans Day promotions kick into high gear, perhaps we might take a moment for a different suggestion about how to commemorate the day:

Make a note to yourself.

Make a promise to do what you can, whenever you can, to pay a visit to an unforgettable American place:

Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington.

More than 300,000 souls have found their final resting places in that cemetery. Anyone who wishes to visit is always welcome.

It is a short distance from the popular tourist attractions on the National Mall. If you are at the Lincoln Memorial and are in the mood for a walk, all you need do is circle behind the monument to Mr. Lincoln, cross the street and head for the Memorial Bridge that spans the Potomac, then take a stroll along the pedestrian lanes that are on either side of the bridge. You emerge in Virginia, where the broad, boulevard-like Memorial Drive leads to the entrance of Arlington.

Once you are inside, all is still. The beauty of the place, and the knowledge of why it is there, can take your breath away.

There are 624 acres of lawns, gardens and towering trees that are hundreds of years old, but as gorgeous as all of that is, they aren't what overwhelm you. The sight of those hundreds of thousands of headstones, each honoring a military veteran or a member of the military who died while serving, is what has the power to render you silent and humbled.

Some parts of the cemetery draw large and constant crowds: the Tomb of the Unknowns, the eternal flame where John F. Kennedy is buried.

But for me, the best way to spend time at Arlington is just to set off on a walk along the many paths that meander through less-visited portions of the grounds. You can walk for hours and never pass the same headstone twice. To stop and read the names on those headstones, and the dates, and to think about the service each of those departed soldiers, sailors, aviators and Marines gave to the nation where the rest of us now live and breathe ... to do that is to remind yourself of what duty entails.

Each person who comes to Arlington takes his or her own memories home. There are moments that can be surprising to a first-time visitor. A distance from the always-well-attended grave of President Kennedy is another resting place that seldom has many people around it: that of William Howard Taft of Ohio, the only person in the nation's history to serve both as president of the United States (1909-1913) and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court (1921-1930). Sometimes you will find yourself the only visitor there.

I always make a point of stopping at the grave of Audie Murphy, the most decorated combat soldier of World War II; his headstone is no different or more ornate than the other hundreds of thousands on the grounds, a soldier among soldiers. And, since 2003, there has been the grave of an old friend and wonderful, generous colleague: Bill Mauldin, the enlisted man whose cartoons in Stars and Stripes made him beloved to the soldiers with whom he served in the Second World War, and who went on, after the war, to become as fine a newspaper editorial cartoonist as ever lived.

A visitor will feel especially moved when, across a patch of grass, he catches sight of one of the between 27 and 30 new burials that take place on an average day. Arlington remains a working cemetery; it is a place, in the words of the cemetery's own defining statement, "where dignity and honor rest in solemn repose," and that touches you most deeply when you see the newly arrived family of a veteran standing with bowed heads at another fresh grave site.

You may not get to Arlington on Veterans Day this week, but if you promise yourself to visit one day, you will never regret it. The cemetery is open to the public every day of the year. It opens promptly at 8 a.m. During these fall and winter months it closes at 5 p.m., and from April through September it stays open until 7 p.m.

Whatever burdens you may be carrying in your own life, whatever problems may be weighing you down, a few hours walking the quiet pathways of Arlington will remind you of the sacrifice and service of people you never met, people who wanted the country to endure so that new generations could live, and hope to prosper, and strive to enjoy. To visit Arlington is to understand anew the true meaning of an ancient phrase:

Paying our respects.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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