WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct.15, 2004)–Set on more than 600 acres of verdant green hillsides on the banks of the Potomac River, America’s most hallowed burial ground, Arlington National Cemetery, pays homage to more than 260,000 men and women who have served their country in times of war and peace. Each year, the cemetery performs more than 5,400 burials, but amazingly, we know little about the people who work there and the daily rituals they perform. The new National Geographic Special, “Arlington: Field of Honor,” premiering Wednesday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), gives viewers a backstage tour of this national landmark. Join National Geographic as its cameras follow groundskeepers, volunteers and members of the cemetery and military staff who work tirelessly with flawless ritual and solemn reverence, as they pay tribute to the fallen military and help grieving families bid a final farewell.
“We’ve all heard of Arlington, but we don’t really understand it. The film tries to take people there, because it’s a critical part of our history and a critical part of our future,” said John Bredar, writer/producer/director of the film. “‘Arlington: Field of Honor,’ is a soulful, intimate and inspiring look at the effort put forth by a variety of people who toil there.”
The quiet beauty and tranquility of Arlington, visited by 4 million people each year, belies the endless work of the cemetery staff and armed services members who, with single-minded focus, help commemorate the deceased veterans and support saddened loved ones as they say goodbye. The personal, behind-the-scenes look reveals an impeccably orchestrated team — from the Old Guard of the 3rd U.S. Infantry to the Arlington Ladies and the Caisson Platoon to the firing party. They join together daily to conduct back-to-back funerals each weekday, complete with Air Force flyovers, full-honors corteges, bands and gun salutes, all while providing the families of the departed steadfast attention and respect.
“Arlington: Field of Honor” follows a typical day in the life of cemetery representative Joe Mercer, Arlington Lady Paula McKinley, burial team leader Darryl Stafford and others, representatives of the small, hard-working Arlington staff that handles up to 25 funeral services each weekday, each with its own dignity.
Mercer, one of five cemetery representatives who choreograph the finely tuned team with near –and necessary –obsession, admits that attention to detail is of paramount importance: “There are just hours and hours of preparation put into a service that lasts 20 minutes,” he explains, speaking of the firing party, honor guard, grounds crews, musicians and others who practice constantly, leaving no room for error in honoring one fallen veteran after another. “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.”
McKinley, whose role as an Arlington Lady and representative of senior members of the armed services, brings comfort and companionship to family members of the deceased, offering them a soothing shoulder and the assurance that, as a member of the large but close-knit military family, she will be there for those left behind if ever needed.
Stafford, a 22-year employee whose discreet crew digs as many as 10 new graves a day, makes sure that, at graveside, everything is as it should be– perfect.
While many of America’s most celebrated warriors grace the lawns of Arlington, those fallen heroes not known to the living are also given appropriate tribute, as viewers follow the arduous trials and training of four young soldiers who hope to become sentinels for the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.
Under the watchful eye of Staff Sergeant Al Lanier, a master of perfection, the cadets undergo withering evaluations and relentless testing of their uniforms, the guard-change ceremony, the manual of arms and their ability to maintain unbreakable composure.
This relentless pursuit of perfection is the ultimate labor of love for their unknown comrades — and is sometimes learned the hard way. “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,” he admonishes the Tomb Guard hopefuls.
The candidates must prove to Lanier that they have what it takes before they will earn the renowned privilege of guarding, in silent vigil, the Unknowns — an honor bestowed on only the most motivated and stalwart of soldiers. A few make it; many others don’t. The Tomb Guard badge, in fact, is one of the most unattainable badges in the service — the second least awarded in the Army.
“Each and every one of these stones represents a story — someone has had an impact on our American history,” explains Arlington’s official historian, Tom Sherlock, of the countless rows of unadorned headstones. “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.”
“Arlington: Field of Honor” was written, produced and directed for National Geographic Television & Film (NGT&F) by John Bredar. Michael Rosenfeld is executive producer and supervising producer is Chris Sondreal. Bonnie Cutler-Shear is editor. Financial support for “Arlington: Field of Honor” has been provided by the Farmers Insurance Group.
Also honoring America’s veterans, National Geographic, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, tells the epic story of America at war in the 20th century, as conveyed through hundreds of compelling oral histories, letters, photographs and personal diaries, in the new book, “Voices of War,” set for release Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
Building on its global reputation for remarkable visuals and compelling stories, National Geographic Television & Film augments its award-winning documentary productions (124 Emmy Awards and more than 900 other industry awards) with feature films, giant-screen films, kids’ programming and long-form television drama programming. Worldwide, National Geographic’s television programming can be seen on the National Geographic Channel, MSNBC and PBS, home video and DVD, and through international broadcast syndication. The National Geographic Channel is received by more than 230 million households in 27 languages in 151 countries. For more information about National Geographic Television & Film, log on to nationalgeographic.com, AOL Keyword: NatGeo.
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