I drove through the night of Day 14 and woke up in DC the next day at a friends house. She had plans for the day, so I was off to explore the city by myself. It turned out perfectly though.
I had originally planned to see as much of the city as I could in one day. Let me tell you: there's a lot to see in DC. You could spend a week there comfortably, filling your days with all kinds of crazy stuff. I don't know what I was thinking, trying to cram it all into a couple hours.I started (and ultimately ended) at Arlington National Cemetary, and I'm glad I was alone. Arlington was a life changer. There is a profound respect and sacredness to Arlington that I have felt in very few places. People impressed me with the little things they would do to to honor and respect the place. For instance, people would run with their shirts off, it being a hot day in DC and all, but when they would approach the cemetary, they would put their shirts on out of respect. As soon as they would leave the area, they would take it back off. It's not that the area outside the cemetary was any less populated or anything like that. It was just out of respect, out of a sense of maintaining the dignity of the place.
I went straight to the Tomb of the Unkowns, hoping to catch the change of the guards. I was very moved by the proceedings. The site is so beautiful. You can see in the pictures that there is a stairwell behind the tomb. It's harder to see that there is an open view of the city behind it and beyond those stairs. The grounds are immaculate, and the wreaths from previous guard changings are strewn about the backside of the tomb. There is such reverence and respect during the entire thing.
Besides the grounds, the professionalism and dignity of the soldiers was overwhelming to me. I had trouble then, and am having that same trouble now, expressing what I felt. It was a profound sense of responsibility and awe. I remember hoping that I would live up to their sacrifice somehow. I remember hoping to be worthy of such remembrance and honor for my service.
There was a lot of emotion, a lot of introspection for me. I sat there for about an hour, watching and thinking. There was more than just the changing of the guard. There was also the wreath laying, and Taps. I cannot describe to you how much that song means to me now -- and I am only in training. I remember thinking that being worthy of Taps was all I could ask for in regards to my service. Being worthy of that song mattered to me. Every note was filled with such... reverance. And gratitude. It was palpable.
I left the tomb and took a walk through the grounds. Again, you just have to have been there to understand what you feel. It's a somber reminder of what has been given for the life we live.
I felt... recharged, somehow, after Arlington. I made my way across the bridge towards the National Mall, thinking that I would hit up all the sites. But something was telling me that my mission was done here. I had seen what I came to see, really. I remember thinking, "No way, I've only seen one thing - I'm not leaving." But even as I ate and walked past the Lincoln Memorial, I got the same feeling. I realized what it was, and decided to head out. I was able to see a few more things on the way to metro, too. The new WWII memorial is up and is very cool. Its a big pool of water. On either side is a large headstone; one says Atlantic, the other says Pacific. Forming a circle around the pool, and connecting the two headstones, are fifty other smaller headstones, each with the name of a state on it. I stopped to think some more, watching as people would go up their state's headstone and get pictures taken. There were some very epic quotes carved into the ground and walls and benches surrounding the pool.
Lucky for me I left when I did. I made it out of the city 30 minutes before a few major roadways were closed off, which would have stranded me in DC for another night. Lucky, right? More like, tricky, if you know what I mean. Thanks to the trickiness, I made it to Virginia Beach that night, and was able to revisit the stomping grounds.