“Welcome to Arlington National Cemetery, our nation’s most sacred shrine. Please remember to conduct yourself with dignity and respect at all times. Please remember these are hallowed grounds,” reads the sign at the entrance of this most solemn and cherished area in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
Arlington National Cemetery is indeed hallowed ground. It is the final resting place of so many who have served the United States of America bravely and who ultimately gave their lives for our country. Every corner of the 624-acre grounds are perfectly maintained, all part of the respectful acknowledgment of the sacrifice each man and woman buried here has dedicated to the nation.
While there are many people who contribute to the day-to-day upkeep of the cemetery to keep it at its best, one role has less to do with the physical grounds and far more to do with honoring the heroes laid to rest here: the Arlington National Cemetery chaplains.
Each chaplain says up to five funerals each day. They talk to the families of the deceased and play a key role in speaking about each individual's life.
The senior Army chaplain is Lt. Colonel Grace Hollis of the U.S. Army. An 18-year military veteran, she supervises six chaplains and two assistants at Arlington National Cemetery. A Catholic priest and a rabbi also offer their services to the cemetery on a regular basis. LifeZette spoke to Hollis exclusively about the important service of the chaplains at Arlington.
She noted the importance of honoring the service member who is being laid to rest. An important role of the chaplains is "continuously walking with the family through the grief and the pain. That’s why you want to honor them as best as you can," she said.
The lieutenant colonel said it is her faith in God that keeps her going.
"I pray over every service. I ask God to use me to honor [each fallen soldier]," Hollis said. "You have to be strong for the individuals, but I ask God to use me to provide some sort of comfort."
And of her vocation to be a chaplain, Hollis said, "I do rely on and trust the fact that God has called me to do this. And He has equipped me and that's what gives me strength, to be able to stand there and honor them [the soldiers] the way that we do."
However fortified these chaplains are with their deep faith and their strength from God, the emotional toll their work sometimes takes remains a reality. Chaplains hear many difficult and tragic stories through the course of their days — and many stories stay with them. That was certainly the case for Hollis, who has been involved in ministry for 30 years.
"There was one story about a service member who died young," Hollis explained. "And the service member had two children. The son was about 13 and the daughter was a little older, maybe 15. And in the midst of doing a service, when you have children and you see them weeping, and they are going to have to live without their dad or their mom — it's heart wrenching."
Hollis continued, "The young man was overcome. Something moved me to touch his hand and he grabbed my hand, both of them, and he wouldn't let it go. And at that moment, I had a connection and I was just saying to myself, 'This is the right thing to do.'"
Said Hollis, "It meant a lot for him to hold onto something." She clasped her two hands together as if she could still feel the young man holding her hand and grieving the tragic loss of his father.
And that is what so many who come to bury a loved one feel at Arlington — the desire to hold on, mingled with the pride in their family member's military service willingly given and the gratitude of a grateful nation.