My mother, aged 92, and I went to Arlington Cemetery to visit my father’s grave on Saturday. My dad served in the US Army as an infantry soldier in Europe and, in December 1944, was wounded in an artillery attack that killed a friend fighting next to him. Dad’s wound was a “million dollar,” wound — not serious but it disqualified him for additional combat duty. He spent the rest of his time in Europe as a military police officer. My father’s military service — his time preparing to go to Europe and his time fighting the German army — was central to who and what he was, so he wanted to be buried at Arlington. He was buried there when he died in 2017.
Anyone can visit Arlington Cemetery; people with immediate family members buried there are allowed to drive to the family member’s gravesite, while everyone else parks in a lot and may walk through every part of the Cemetery. A guard, standing just at the entrance to the public lot, directs traffic and checks the IDs of people going in to visit family graves. Tourists go into the public lot and family members drive another 100 or so yards and turn into one of the Cemetery’s main roads.
When we visited, just in front of us at the guard’s station was a pickup truck identified as “Veterans For Trump.” A large Trump flag and several large American flags were flying from the truck and the driver was having a long conversation with the guard. We were struck by the inappropriateness of such a partisan symbol at Arlington. The conversation between the guard and visitors is usually a quick one, but yesterday’s conversation went on longer. I could not hear them, but the amount of time it was taking was making me nervous. Other guards, standing several yards away from the main post, seemed to straighten up and take note, and I tried to figure out how to get out of being hemmed in by the truck in front of me and the cars behind me. After several minutes, the pickup turned toward the public lot, and we advanced to the guard. I showed him our pass and our IDs, and said I hoped he was okay. He replied that he was fine, thanked me for my concern, and added that we were going to be fine in the Cemetery and we should have a good visit.
My father died three years ago, and his death is still an open wound for my mother who was with him for 70 years. Visiting his grave at Arlington can be difficult and sad, but the Cemetery has always felt oddly welcoming to me. My father is surrounded by people of different religious denominations, ranks, and judging by their last names, places of national origin. They fought in different wars, in different services, with different specialties, but were all part of something together, something bigger than themselves.
Like my father, I wanted to be part of something bigger, too; that’s why I joined the CIA, so I could do fascinating work while serving my fellow Americans. In contrast, Donald Trump seems to not understand either military service or being a part of something bigger than oneself; he is the most divisive president in my lifetime. Seeing the Trump flag, and all that it represents as we entered the sacred space of Arlington was jarring, and unsettling. It seemed like an effort to insult and intimidate. It did neither. My mother and I will both be voting for Joe Biden.
Author Margaret Henoch retired after 24 years in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA. She served at CIA HQS and overseas and was promoted into the Senior Intelligence Service. Before joining the CIA, Margaret worked at SRI, International, based in Menlo Park, California, analyzing the avionics and design of Soviet aircraft, and before SRI, she worked for Ralph Nader at Public Interest Research Group.