Moments after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, Vice President Joe Biden stepped to the podium inside the marble white Memorial Amphitheater and told a story about a wounded veteran he met. The man's legs were gone and one of his hands were mangled.
The soldier reached up with his good hand to the triangle above his bed, hoisted himself into a sitting position and apologized: He said it was his intention to greet the vice president by standing and saluting.
Tears shot from my eyes and air flew from my lungs.
I wasn't the only one gasping -- or crying. Sitting beneath a brilliant blue sky amid a sea of red, white and blue, everyone of us felt the power of Biden's words. Old soldiers got misty-eyed, civilians of every age and hue wiped their eyes. Even children too young to understand what war is seemed to sense they were experiencing a hallowed moment on even more hallowed ground.
Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery packs a punch. That's why I went. Experiencing that day at that site had long been on my list of must-have life experiences. Now I think I'll make at an annual tradition.
Spending the day there was my way of paying tribute to my grandfather Wilbur Young, who fought in World War II and whose sailor's hat sits in a place of honor in my home along with the bullet casings from his 21-gun salute funeral. I went to honor my uncle John Young, one of the countless unsung heroes of Vietnam. I went to honor my kid brother, Gregory Lancette, a newly minted Navy man who graduated from boot camp this summer. I also went to thank the millions of men and women I've never met who have placed their lives on the line for this country.
Biden asked the crowd if we knew what was the most frequently asked question he received from wounded soldiers. Several possibilities raced through my mind but I wasn't even close. The vice president said the number one question he gets is this: "Sir, can you help me get back to my unit?"
Tears erupted again and I thought I was about to start sobbing. A little girl broke my concentration when she sprinted away from her young veteran parents in record speed. I threw out my right arm to scoop her up and swing her back to mom and dad. A flag in my shirt pocket fell to the ground but got scooped up so fast I couldn't see which of the nearby men in uniform retrieved it. I blinked twice and wondered if the flag pickup had been a figment of my imagination.
Biden and other speakers including Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki trumpeted some good news -- faster and better benefits and long-overdue increases in all kinds of programs for veterans among other things. He also issued a notice to all who seek to do us harm, saying that we will never shrink from danger and that we will never be defeated.
In between speeches, a member of "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band belted out songs that took me to a place where no music ever has. His voice reached into my guts and lifted me as high as the flags draped behind the speakers and guests of honor. Soldiers saluted, colors retired, canons fired and the service ended.
Silence enveloped the amphitheater. I chose to walk back down to the Arlington entrance instead of waiting for the bus, drifting off in thought again. I wished that more employers would close on Veterans Day so that more people could attend ceremonies honoring those making the ultimate
I saw a plot of land being prepared for a new section of graves. I thought of America's men and women bravely wearing uniforms that day -- doubting that any of them had the remotest idea that they will soon lay there.