While President John F. Kennedy's Eternal Flame and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are heavily packed with tourists on Veterans Day, Section 60, where recently fallen service members are buried, bore a different scene.
“It wasn't at all crowded. There were maybe a dozen visitors scattered throughout the section, each keeping to themselves near their loved ones' markers,” Veteran U.S. Army Sgt. David Brown told IJR.
He wrote on Facebook that he was at Arlington National Cemetery visiting two of his friends, one of whom “hardened me into a soldier,” and the other “helped soften me into a leader.”
“Far away from cameras and fanfare,” Brown saw a “lone man” who he later realized was retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who is secretary of defense. At the time, he was surprised to see him at Section 60, but upon reflection, he told IJR, “I can't imagine anywhere else he'd be on Veterans Day.”
An older man, who donned a hat and sweatshirt with Marine Corps logos and slogans, approached Mattis, shook his hand, and called it an “honor” to meet the general. While the father was moved to see him, he clarified to Mattis, “I know that's just the kind of man you are.”
Brown explained to IJR that the man had been visiting the grave of his son, who was a Marine and told Mattis his son considered him “his hero.”
The general smiled and said something similar to, “Well, I think your son is one of mine.”
Brown said the two took some photos and talked for a bit, before he shook hands and parted with the father saying, “I'm so glad I got to meet you here. My son would have loved this.”
After the man returned to his son's marker, Brown approached the general and also expressed the honor it was to meet him. He explained that he was visiting two of his Army friends, with the disclaimer that losing a friend isn't as devastating as losing family.
“Mattis stopped me by putting a hand on my shoulder and said, 'It's important that we remember everyone, however, we knew them,'” Brown recounted to IJR and admitted that it “stunned” him.
He explained that the general conversed with everyone “like an old friend,” and never did the majority of the talking, but instead chose to listen.
“He was just as comfortable talking to an Army major in dress blues as he was a service member's child, and the ability to transition seamlessly from one particular type of loss to another is something I've never seen in anyone else, military or otherwise,” Brown told IJR.
While the encounter was certainly meaningful to everyone he spoke to on Saturday, Brown explained that Mattis's actions also have an effect on the military as a whole.
“I think it's important that the boots on the ground feel like there's someone at the top who has their backs,” he said. “I've always heard that a leader can serve the people above him or the people below him, but rarely can he do both at once. I think every individual service member knows that General Mattis is looking out for them first.”
He added that people in uniform need to be able to believe “they have leaders at the highest levels that they can trust.”
Brown revealed to IJR that he's been lucky to know commanders who are able to “connect on a personal level with every soldier,” but said, “Gen. Mattis stands out.”