While walking through the Arlington National Cemetery in July 2001, I kept crossing paths with an elderly retired U.S. Marine. Initially exchanging only nods, our greetings became more personal as our encounters increased. Toward the end of the day, we met with our families at the tomb of the unknown soldier and said our good-byes in a manner typical for such brief warm friendships. He and his family parted for the Iwo Jima memorial and my family and I left for our hotel, unable to add a visit to the memorial so late in our day.
Although our encounter was brief, I will never forget the compassion this man showed as he shared stories of his fellow soldiers, their service, and the sacrifices they endured in the name of our country. As he told me these tales, I would periodically notice him pull his cupped-hand from his pocket and sprinkle the contents onto a nearby grave. In the late afternoon, after many such encounters, the marine approached me with his hands outstretched. He took my hands and emptied the contents of his into mine, and explained:
After the battle of Iwo Jima ended, many of the American survivors filled their pockets with the ground’s volcanic ash. Many soldiers carried the ash with them back to their base, to their US homes, and ultimately wherever their lives took them. Over the years, whenever my friend would make the trip to Arlington, he would carry the volcanic ash in his pockets and sprinkle it on the graves of soldiers as he walked through the grounds.
As he moved the contents of his hands into mine, he said this would be his last visit to Arlington National Cemetery and that I now held the last of his volcanic ash from Iwo Jima. Closing my hand over the ash, he asked that I someday identify a young fallen soldier that caught my attention, and sprinkle the ash on his grave in memory of his fallen comrades at Iwo Jima.
His wishes were honored on behalf of all our solders.