MATTOON — Brenda Lawyer Burwell married her husband, Harold, after he completed his service in the U.S. Army from 1964 to 1967, so she had never seen him give a salute before.
Mrs. Burwell said she was surprised by the range of emotions she experienced while watching him participate in a public wreath laying ceremony Nov. 16 at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
When she saw her husband salute, Mrs. Burwell said it “really hit home” that he had enlisted to serve his country and potentially be deployed into harm’s way.
“I am very proud of Harold,” Mrs. Burwell said.
The Mattoon couple had the opportunity to visit the national cemetery in Arlington, Va. while touring the Washington D.C. area during a trip for approximately 40 people organized by Happy Trails travel of Fisher.
Mrs. Burwell said Happy Trails owners Dave and Chris Cenders submitted a request several months in advance to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Oconee American Legion from southwest Shelby Count sponsored the wreath.
Burwell joined three veterans from the Oconee post in taking part in the ceremony under the direction of soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as The Old Guard. The 3rd Infantry maintain a 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Harold said he appreciated their step-by-step instructions.
“I was a little more nervous than I have been in a long time,” Burwell said of taking part in the ceremony.
“I thought it was quite an honor to do it.”
Their visit to Arlington also took the couple past the thousands of white stones that mark the graves of American service members, the graves of President John F. Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Ted, and the Arlington House.
This mansion was built by President George Washington’s adopted grandson and later became the home of the builder’s daughter and his son-in-law, future Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The property was confiscated by the Union during the Civil War and then turned into a national cemetery.
Other destinations on the tour included President Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, Va.; the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa.; and the U.S. Capitol, Smithsonian Institution museums, Ford’s Theatre, and several monuments in Washington.
Burwell said he and his wife had long wanted to visit the Washington area and they were able to fulfill this goal during their retirement. Mrs. Burwell added that she was drawn to the history of this region.
“I think everyone should go and see what this country is based on and the history we have. We don’t realize what a blessing we have living in this country,” Mrs. Burwell said.
In Washington, the couple visited the national World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War memorials. Although Burwell had seen a traveling scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial before, he said he was still amazed by the size of the actual memorial and the number of names listed on it. The memorial’s reflective stone surface bears the names of the more than 58,000 American service members who were killed in Vietnam or who are missing in action.
The Mattoon couple watched as visitors left flowers and notes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Mrs. Burwell said a man in their tour group openly wept in the presence of the wall.
“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall is very moving,” Mrs. Burwell said.
Upon graduating from Mattoon High School, Burwell enlisted in the Army and was then stationed at Fort Carson, Colo. Burwell said the two units that he briefly served with at Fort Carson were sent to Vietnam after he had been transferred to Germany, where he we was stationed for most of his enlistment.
Burwell said he was trained by the Army to serve as a utility pole lineman but he did not get to put this skill to work until he took a job with the Illinois Consolidated Telephone Co. after completing his service.
In 2001, Burwell retired as an installer after working 34 years for Consolidated. Mrs. Burwell retired in 2007 as a paraprofessional at Williams Elementary School after working 18 years for the Mattoon school district.
Mrs. Burwell said she told her husband that she “really wanted to do some travelling” together after they both retired. Their journeys so far have taken them to Alaska, Niagara Falls, Puerto Rico and several other locations with bank-affiliated travel groups and with Happy Trails.
Burwell said they particularly enjoy travelling with Happy Trails because owners Dave and Chris Cenders set aside time for side trips and other personal attention for their clients. Mrs. Burwell said the couple is very knowledgeable about the Washington area and worked hard to make the wreath laying ceremony possible.
“They are just wonderful people to travel with,” Mrs. Burwell said.
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