"We have done well, now we must do good"
By Col. Neale Cosby (RET)
On this special occasion, I would like to address this question, are we in danger of losing our cultural memory?
I will begin by answering my own question: No. But we will forget unless we take constant reminders to refresh our memory—like this full honor wreath laying ceremony this morning at the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier, sponsored by the First Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line (Recreated) on behalf of the City of Alexandria with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in attendance. And what could be a more fitting memory than that of the 269th birthday of George Washington, the father of our county. A giant of a man, physically, culturally and morally. A man of integrity and honesty who was buried a little more than 200 years ago in his beloved Virginia soil at Mount Vernon.
Centuries ago, we human beings painted walls and carved hieroglyphics into rocks as a lasting legacy of our civilizations. You see, wanting to remember is a longstanding desire of us human beings. Today, we use electronic bytes and the World Wide Web to record our history. Somewhere in between then and now, we built an 80,000-ton structure across the Potomac River and called it the Washington Monument. We erected this Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier with these words:
"HERE LIES A SOLDIER OF THE REVOLUTION WHOSE IDENTY IS KNOWN BUT TO GOD"
80 years ago, this nation dedicated a 50 ton block of Colorado marble in Arlington National Cemetery as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and carved these words on the west front:
"HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD"
Note the similarity of the words inscribed on the Shrine and the Tomb in Arlington. Both inscriptions end in the phrase, "KNOWN BUT TO GOD." I suggest that is not a mere happening. It is a serious, solemn, reasoned and thoughtful reminder of the role of God in our lives—the all-powerful guide.
As George Washington said, "...the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." The Rosetta Stone was the lost key to reading early hieroglyphics. Today software is the key to decipher modern information storage. So, how do we not "lose the key" to the understanding of our cultural memory? Let me tell you one way.
Two years ago a few of us, Richard Azzaro, Meredith Smith, Gavin McIlevnna and I formed an association of the former Guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We call it the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You may ask why? First and foremost, we want to maintain the memory of this most sacred shrine and what it means. In a sense, we feel, we were all fortunate to have performed duty at the Tomb. Now we want to keep the memory of the Unknowns, the Missing in Action and the Prisoners of War fresh in the minds of the citizens of this country and the rest of the World. As we say, we have done well for ourselves, now we want to do good for others.
Our Society also has a motto, which goes like this:
"Soldiers Never Die Until they Are Forgotten; Tomb Guards Never Forget."
Lest we forget—then how do we remember? We come together to remember significant cultural events of our lives some of which are memories of fallen comrades and beloved heroes like George Washington. Our presence here today is testimony to the fact that remembering is a very important part of our lives. In many cases, the events we celebrate occur in a time of war, a time of conflict or something similar throughout our nation. For example, George Washington and the American Revolution. These great events of wars and conflicts have in many ways collectively shaped our national consciousness, and individually for us veterans, a time that forged a sense of self that in many ways defines us still today.
At this point, as the Treasurer of the United States Capitol Historical Society, I must remind you of the place of resounding deeds on Jenkins Hill—the Capitol of the United States. A gold mine of memories of our past and present. It does not matter rather we are in uniform or in civilian cloths. We all have responsibilities to carry the heavy memories of our past just as we are doing here today. And for some of us perhaps a little guilt for having been the ones fortunate enough to return to the world we now enjoy. Our first president, George Washington, had something to say about this.
Let me suggest that the next time you are in Arlington National Cemetery go to the Amphitheater just west of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Above the speaker's platform you will read these words:
"When we assumed the soldier we did not lay aside the citizen."
Good citizenship is required of us all. Let me end by telling you a short story, a true story, a personal story.
40 plus years ago I was the platoon leader of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. One day I was standing on the plaza inspection a guard change just before noon, as I recall. Since I was in uniform, a lot of visitors came up and asked me the usual questions about the Tomb, about the guards and about the cemetery. Prior to the guard change a little old lady asked me these questions:
Are there guards here at night?
Answer: Yes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And it has been so since 1936. Every second, of every minute, of every hour of every day, 365 day a year—rain, shine, snow, sleet or heat, a guard is here day and night.
How are the guards selected?
Answer: It is a careful screening process to insure we get the best of the best soldiers in the United States Army . I cited the high character requirements for duty at the Tomb. (You scouts will appreciate this) In short, I told her, they must be good soldiers and good citizens.
Following the guard change she came back to me again. She was persistent. I can still see her face today. She asked:
Do the guards like the duty here?
Answer: yes, they feel it is an honor to continuously render, in their small soldierly way, this nation's highest honors to the Unknown Soldier.
What do you mean? I explained that the highest honors that this country renders to anyone are a 21-gun salute. For example, the President of the United States gets a 21-gun salute. And that is what we do here, continuously. Then I pointed to the guard on duty. In a whisper, I counted 21 seconds as he paused at each facing movement. One thousand one--one thousand two--one thousand three--and so on. I counted the 21 steps as he crossed the mat from one side of the Tomb to the other, always keeping his eye on the Tomb. Rendering the highest honors, continuously.
At the end, she began to cry and she said: "you may wonder why I'm asking these questions but you see, I have a personal interest here. This is the only place I have to pay my respects to my son who did not return from The War." With that she departed--leaving me touched for life.
You see, that's the Rosetta Stone. That's the software key. That's
the key to our cultural memory. All rolled into one!
EDITORS NOTE: The following is a speech that was presented on Monday, 19 February 2001 for the Full Honor Wreath Laying Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier. This site is located in the heart of Alexandria, Virginia at the Presbyterian Meeting House, 321 S. Fairfax St.
While the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a popular attraction in Washington, D.C., consider taking a few minutes on your next trip through the area to stop in Alexandria.
Free 24-hour parking proclamations are available at the Ramsay House Visitors Center, 221 King Street. The passes are valid at two-hour metered spaces only and only to non-Alexandria residents. Prior to receiving your pass, you should put sufficient change into the meter to cover the time between parking the car and returning from the Visitors Center with the pass. Please have your license plate number and state identification available to give the Visitors Center, as it is required to receive the parking pass. The proclamation may be renewed one time.