During Washington Week, the U.S. Senate Youth Program delegates are immersed in learning about various pathways into public service from the highest elected and appointed officials in the country. The students navigate the week under the watchful gaze of their Military Mentors, who guide and offer advice on finding success in education, life and career. The week comes to an emotional culmination for the 104 student delegates as they visit Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon on the final day, gaining a much more profound understanding of those willing to give the ultimate service and sacrifice for their country. The impact of this visit can be seen in excerpts from the students’ essays below.
As our nation pauses this week to honor our veterans, we share these poignant remembrances from delegates. The U.S. Senate Youth Program is grateful to the efforts of Arlington National Cemetery in supporting the program’s annual visit exemplifying public service, sacrifice and selflessness for America’s next generation of leaders. To learn more about Arlington National Cemetery and the arduous process through which soldiers can become the sentinels who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, please visit the Arlington National Cemetery website.
In the words of USSYP Delegates:
“One experience that affected me personally was on our final day when we went to Arlington National Cemetery. I have been to Arlington several times so it was not a new experience but I had always been in the summer when it was usually warm and sunny. This time though it was a little different. It was cold and snowing, and I found myself complaining on the inside about how miserable it was standing outside in the cold, but all of a sudden I stopped myself. I realized that my slight discomfort could not even compare to what our troops have gone through to maintain the freedom of this country. These guards keep the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier guarded 24/7, 365 days a year; that means rain or shine, sweating or freezing, they stand guard. And I realized the least I could do in honor of them is stand in the cold for an hour to watch this ceremony. The appreciation I had afterwards was something I cannot put into words – all I can say is I am proud to have men and women protecting me despite all the pain and loss they have experienced. We are truly blessed to live in America.”
Grace Belize Anderson, WY – 2017
“Our visit started off with a solemn changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. I have only ever watched this activity from the side, so being allowed a view of this historic and symbolic ceremony head on was an experience in itself. I was amazed how at this ceremony we, as one, reflected in thanks on the brave men and women who daily give their lives selflessly so that we can debate whatever matters we want, whenever we want, with whomever we want, with no fear of being silenced.”
Andrew Mangan, NY – 2018
“The United States Senate and The Hearst Foundations’ brilliantly ring Washington Week with a visit to George Washington’s tomb at the beginning and a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the end. It struck me right then and there that from the greatest known of America’s public servants to the least known and nameless public servant, each man and woman deciding to be a public servant offers up his or her life for our country in the service of others. That was a true moment of growth and it was transformative for me to realize I am willing to do just that. This is yet another thing for which I am grateful.”
Dallas McCash, TN – 2015
USSYP delegates participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“We met a soldier from the 3rd Infantry Regiment; the Old Guard. He is one of the few who is entrusted with protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They work 25 hour shifts – in rain, shine, freezing cold, blistering heat. The tomb has been guarded, without pause, since 1937. He is the most important person I met all week. I’ll never forget his sacrifice. I don’t think any of the 104 of us will. And while it was a distinct honor to meet the president of the United States, when I looked into the stone eyes of that infantryman, who sacrifices so much so that we can live in freedom, I realized how insignificant I am, we are, the president is. I realize that my freedoms and opportunities aren’t possible because of the men and women on the other side of the Potomac, but instead, the men and women beneath my feet.”
Charles H. Megginson, IV, DE – 2016
“Standing in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery moved me more than I can put into words. Senator Cory Booker spoke to the 2017 delegates and said, ‘you drink deeply from wells of freedom…that you did not dig…you cannot pay them back, you have to pay it forward.’ He was speaking of the sacrifices others have made so that I have the opportunities and rights that I do. Waiting in front of the tomb and watching the guard gave me far more insight than I realized when I reflected upon it later. People have given their lives freely for my security, my freedom, my rights. They didn’t know who I was and I will never know all of them, but they hoped that I—or someone like me—would seize the opportunity they’d given and go improve the world for those following behind us, just as they did. Being able to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown was such an honor and I am overwhelmingly thankful that I could experience it. It has truly changed the way I perceive the world and how I behave in it.”
Sydney Ross, AL – 2017
“Washington Week was more than just a series of policy addresses and inspirational lectures. It was an opportunity to reflect upon a shared American history while relishing the company of some of the brightest young minds in the nation. I will never forget standing on the steps on a rainy day at the Arlington National Cemetery, huddling under an umbrella with two of my new friends while watching two committed servicemen perform a wreath-laying ceremony dedicated to unknown soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the democracy that we enjoy every day.”
Meena Venkataramanan, AZ – 2017
“Visiting Arlington Cemetery was the most touching experience of the entire trip. Driving past row after row of white gravestones was a bone-chilling experience that will stay vivid in my mind forever. Seeing each individual grave and realizing that for every one of those, a soldier gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country — this was the most inspiring moment of the week. It made me think about how if these men and women were willing to lay down their lives for us, then the rest of us should be striving to work just as hard to keep this country great and free. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was an experience that struck deep inside me. Every single person had the utmost respect for what was happening. The wreath ceremony brought tears to many of us and reminded us that freedom isn’t free.”
Mark Jerome, ID – 2016
“One of the most powerful moments for me was during our visit to Arlington National Cemetery. As the bus crawled slowly through the hills and the white stones rolled by, I felt a great sense of guilt overcome me. The endless graves were a visualization of the sacrifice that countless men and women have made for freedom, democracy, and this country. Without them, I would have nothing. I was brought to tears as the bus approached the central memorial. As we packed the steps facing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a gentle rain created a scene of perfect sobriety. Taps rang out through the air, and I felt a connection to my country I had never felt before. I will never understand how much others have given up for me, nor can I ever hope to. As Senator Corey Booker reminded us, ‘You cannot pay them back. You have to pay it forward.’ After experiencing such a moment, my love for the United States grew beyond what I can describe in words. It has provided everything I have, and despite my potential issues with those running it, I owe everything I have to it. Nothing could have instilled patriotism the way our Military Mentors and visit to Arlington National Cemetery did, and I thank Washington Week wholeheartedly for allowing me to realize how much I owe to my country and those who have come before me.”
Cyrus Shanehsaz, DE – 2017
© Photo by Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin