Thursday, January 31, 2013


I took a trip to visit Jill and Jared (and family) over the MLK weekend.  It was a wonderful trip.  While I was there, we visited Arlington National Cemetery.  Richard Snelding, a friend from work, had a close childhood friend, Jonas Kelsall, who was killed in the Chinook helicopter that was shot down in Afghanistan in 2011, and I promised Richard that the next time I was in the area, I’d try to visit his grave.  Richard went to the funeral services, but those were held in Shreveport, where they grew up.  Jonas (the soldier) is buried at Arlington, and Richard couldn’t go to that part.  I figured we’d find the grave (they have a terminal in the visitor’s center where you can look up locations of graves and it prints out directions), take a picture, and then move on.  But it was so much more than that.  

When we first got there, before we found the grave, I was already amazed to see that they still had the wreaths on all the graves.  I knew that a nonprofit organization lays wreaths on all the graves at Arlington in December.  I’ve seen pictures of it before, and when I was visiting Jill a year ago in December, a woman in her ward talked about volunteering to go help lay the wreaths.  Somebody goes to a lot of work MAKING all those wreaths, too.  I can’t imagine how many it must be.  Anyway, I figured the wreaths would be gone by now, but they were all still there, and still in very good condition.  There was a tiny bit of browning here and there, but nothing significant, all with a big red bow.  They keep the grass immaculately groomed, so they must have to move those wreaths and then put them back to mow, which would be a big job in itself.  (I assume you still have to mow grass in the winter, as long as there’s no snow on the ground?  Not much experience in this department.) 
Just Jill, Kadence, and I went out there after church on Sunday.  When we got to the grave, we took pictures, and we had Kadence hold up the flag showing that he was a SEAL (the wind was blowing like crazy).   He was a member of SEAL Team 6, and a bunch of them were killed when their helicopter was shot down.  

We took pictures of where the tombstones began from the deaths that day and had Kadence stand at the end, there were a lot of them.  I have since looked up more information about what happened that day, and 38 people died in the crash, plus a SEAL working dog, so a lot of the soldiers are probably buried somewhere else, maybe in the veterans’ cemetery in their own home town. 
The tombstone next to Jonas’s said “Here lies the unidentified remains” from that day, and we thought that was strange.  I’ve since found out that sometimes they have remains left over that they can’t identify (I imagine a lot of those caskets hold pieces and parts of people instead of intact bodies), so they put them together in another grave, so that’s what they did here.  The tombstone shows in one of the pictures I took of Jonas’s grave, and I have cropped it so you can see it.  It says, “Here lies the Unidentified Remains of Extortion 17.  Afghanistan August 6 2011”
They call the incident Extortion 17 because that was the call sign of their helicopter that crashed.  It was hit by a RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) soon after it took off after the soldiers participated in battle there for at least two hours. 

Instead of just taking pictures and moving on, we stayed with the grave for a while.  It truly felt like we were spending time with him and the others there.  When we were finally ready to leave, we decided to have a prayer.  It was actually Jill’s idea.  She and Kadence got on their knees and she suggested it.  I knelt down too and I said the prayer.  Even though we never met Jonas, Jill and I cried and the spirit was so strong that I felt it for days.  It ended up being a very spiritual experience and totally unexpected.  We walked around for a while with wet and slightly muddy knees, but we didn’t care. 

Then as we walked from the grave to the Tomb of the Unknowns, we noticed a few wreathes were blown over, so we fixed them.  Then we spent more time picking up wreaths and returning them to their spots.  Kadence went from “I’m tired, I can’t walk anymore” to being very enthusiastic about picking up the wreaths and she was running all over the place, fixing them.  We all participated, and before long it got out of control.  It was a windy day and quite a few wreaths were tipped over.  “Come on, Grandma!  Here are four more!  Look, there’s a whole row!”  I got my exercise that day.

The soldier guarding the tomb.  He walks very precisely back and forth on the black runner.
The officer inspecting the new guard to make sure everything is perfect
Making the change
We went to the Tomb of the Unknowns.  During the summer they do the changing of the guard every 30 minutes, and we hurried to get there before the half-hour, but we then found out that it only happens every hour during the winter months.  Jill had never been able to watch it, even though she had been there a number of times, because she always had baby-watching duty and had to stay over to the side of the big memorial amphitheater they have there.  You have to be silent and show respect when you’re there.  So, even though it was cold and we had left our coats in the car (we had debated on whether we wanted to carry them around if we got too warm and decided against it), we waited the next 30 minutes for the changing of the guard.  Jill suggested that we wander around until it got closer to the time for it to begin, but we had a front-row seat (actually a front-row STAND) and I didn’t want to give it up.  I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to get close if we left, and it’s a good thing we didn’t, because the place was PACKED by the time the guard change began.  It was MLK Day and inauguration weekend, and there were a lot of people there  (lots of tour buses, too).  So we watched that and it was so cool, as always. 

Then we hobbled our frozen selves back to the car to return to Jill’s place.  In spite of the cold, a quick, casual side trip turned into a warm, wonderful memory.  You never know when that will happen.

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