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November 5, 2004
Network special features cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is featured in a National Geographic Special to air Wednesday.
by Dennis Ryan
Pentagram staff writer

National Geographic Special's are justly famed for their documentaries of far away exotic locales, people and fauna. Wednesday night, the society unveils a subject quite close to home, "Arlington: Field of Honor" at 8 p.m. on PBS.

The National Geographic cameras explored the 600 acres of well maintained grounds last summer and spoke with the people behind the scenes who make sure the more than 5,400 burials a year are performed with grace and dignity.

More than 4 million people visit Arlington each year to pay their respects to the more than 270,000 buried there. The special shows Old Guard Soldiers, including a firing party and the caisson platoon preparing for their missions among other jobs.

The Arlington Ladies represented by Paula McKinley and cemetery representative Joe Mercer and others are followed on a typical day. The Arlington Ladies, formed in the 1960's, are officer wives who convey the condolences of the senior officers to each family of the deceased.

Mercer is one of five representatives who help arrange up to 25 funerals every weekday.

"There are just hours and hours of preparation put into a service that lasts 20 minutes," Mercer explains in the special.

"You can never stop and say, 'whoa, let's back up and do that again.' You have one chance to do it right and that's it."

Darryl Stafford has one of the most important jobs in the cemetery, yet he is usually not seen by mourners, only their work. The 22-year employee and his crew discreetly dig as many as 10 new graves a day.

The documentary examines the difficult training to become a Tomb Guard, as Staff Sgt. Al Lanier, instructs four young Soldiers. Lanier strictly examines their uniforms, actions in the guard-change ceremony and manual of arms in an attempt to instill a steel resolve.

"If you take for granted the things we're telling you, we'll make you pay for it later, and that's just going to be more sweat for you," Lanier is heard saying to the aspiring Tomb Guards. The Tomb Guard badge is the second rarest badge in the Army after the Army Astronaut badge.

Arlington Cemetery has a history dating to the Civil War and official historian Tom Sherlock relates his view of the burial ground.

"Each and every one of these stones represents a story--someone has had an impact on our American history," Sherlock relates. "It's that cumulative weaving of the fabric that makes Arlington so special. The hallowing factor is each and every person's grave here. Every day, history is added to this cemetery."

The society is joining forces with the Library of Congress's Veteran's History Project this month, in honor of Veterans Day, to tell the story of veterans in the new book, "Voices of War," to be released Thursday.

Posted: 5 November 2004