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A Story for Memorial Day

A Not-so-Ordinary Officer

By James Windle

The purpose of Memorial Day is to recognize those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country and ideals. It has been a privilege to have worked with so many men and women in uniform during my time in government. When you have worked in Washington, DC, you also are surrounded by symbols erected to honor those who have served. The most dramatic symbol is Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington Cemetery stands as a constant reminder of the costs of freedom. It is perched on a hillside to the west of the Lincoln Memorial. It is a place of overwhelming history where every visit offers a lesson. A visit to Arlington prompted me to explore the life of one of America’s most famous and unheralded leaders, and taught me how an “ordinary” American soldier could make an extraordinary difference in preserving American freedoms.

Five-star General George Catlett Marshall (1880-1959) is arguably one of the most accomplished men in American history. He is not mentioned with names like Washington and Lincoln, but he should be. Winston Churchill described Marshall as the “organizer of victory” of World War II. In 1944 and 1947 Marshall was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” He was President Truman’s special envoy to China after the War. The General became the Secretary of State from 1947-1948 and an architect of the “Marshall Plan” to rebuild war-torn Europe. He was also Secretary of Defense and the President of the American Red Cross. Yet, Marshall’s incredible career was far from inevitable.

While obviously extremely capable, he was an officer with only modest prospects throughout most of career. Only after toiling for many years and after getting passed for promotion many times did Marshall get his opportunity. He assumed the position of U.S. Army Chief of Staff in 1939. Subsequently, he contributed to every major foreign policy decision over the next decade. He is one of my heroes.

On a visit to Arlington Cemetery, I went to pay my respects to the General. This was not as easy a task as I thought. Marshall had requested to then-President Eisenhower, “Bury me simply, like an ordinary officer of the U.S. Army who has served his country honorably. No fuss.” Marshall’s request was granted. Today, despite Marshall’s contribution to American history, his gravesite does not make the “Top 21 Points of Interest” on Arlington Cemetery’s Visitor map.

I looked to the helpful staff at the Visitor’s center for assistance. One of the staff members looked through maps and computer databases before remembering a resource of last resort. She reached underneath the countertop to pull out a small, plastic box, a relic that looked like it was last used in 1970. It contained brown, stained index cards with names ordered alphabetically. She flipped back to the “M” section and pulled out George C. Marshall. We both squinted to read the faded ink, but it was the General: Grave 8198, Section 7.

I arrived at the vicinity of General Marshall’s gravesite and proceeded down a steep grassy hillside. After a few minutes of searching, I arrived at the General’s final resting place. The unworn grass leading to and around his gravesite supported his anonymity. He was buried like an ordinary Army officer.

George Marshall represented the best of America. He expected to disappear from public life to his home in Leesburg, Virginia in his retirement. He had served in both World Wars and dedicated his entire adult life to the United States Army. Still, when the President called him back to public service time and time again, he answered the call. His motive was never his own legend. It was to serve the national and public interest.

There are few indications that Marshall viewed himself as extraordinary. He lived as he is buried at Arlington Cemetery: simply and anonymously. As a result, it may take a visitor a little effort to pay their respects to this great American. It takes no effort to recognize, however, that Marshall represented an ordinary American who made an extraordinary difference.

A version of this piece was published in the online publication “Arlington Unwired” in 2007.

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On Memorial Day it is not necessary to visit Arlington Cemetery to pay our respects to those who have sacrificed. There are a number of local services and events taking place today around the 8th District.  You can also observe the National Moment of Remembrance with your silence at 3:00pm local time.