ARLINGTON, Va. — Lyle Smith sat in a wheelchair on the grounds of the national cemetery, not far from the Tomb of the Unknowns.
"I never imagined there would be so many headstones," he said, looking out over the green rolling hills covered with snow-white markers.
Smith was born seven years after the "War to End All Wars" ended; less than 20 years later, he left his family's homestead in Columbus, Wis., as a volunteer to serve his country in another world war.
Except for time spent in the European theater, he never ventured far from Wisconsin; he married Shirley and they had a son and daughter, each of whom also had a son and daughter, and those four grandchildren each had a son and daughter as well.
"I've led a good life," Smith, 87, said. "I've worked hard, I've loved my family."
He made a living as a skilled carpenter and now volunteers at a senior center. He remains fiercely proud of his military service.
Smith struggled to find words to describe how he felt about being where former comrades are buried alongside soldiers from every U.S. conflict going back to the Civil War.
"It's overwhelming," he said. "And I think back to our very first war, our Revolution and those freedom fighters, and I have to thank all of them. Without every one of them, I would not be here."
One such freedom fighter was Frederick Hain of Berks County, Pa.
His father, John Henry Hain, took him and his brothers, Adam, Daniel and Joseph, to enlist to "fight for freedom." Father and sons reported to a friend, Daniel Broadhead, who -- because of his bravery in the beginning battles of the American Revolution -- had just been made a colonel in the Colonial army by Gen. George Washington.
Family and church records note that John Henry Hain was a "staunch patriot" and a "fanatic in the cause of freedom." It took some persuasion, but Broadhead finally convinced the elder Hain not to enlist with his sons, saying: "It is a shame to suffer so old a man to perform the arduous duties of a soldier."
Frederick Hain quickly rose to the rank of sergeant -- probably not too difficult, since soldiers in that army of farmers deserted with shocking frequency for reasons ranging from harvest duties to disenchantment, starvation and other horrid conditions faced by the rag-tag force.
Years later, at age 84, Frederick Hain appeared before the Common Pleas Court of Berks County, requesting a pension for his Revolutionary War service. He wrote that he enlisted in December 1776 in Capt. Fisher's Company, First Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line, commanded by Col. Broadhead.
Hain said his company remained in Reading for only a few days before marching to join the rest of the regiment in Philadelphia "or nearby."
From there, the company was ordered to Trenton, N.J., and Hain "was one of the guards to conduct the Hessian prisoners from Trenton to Reading."
Also in his company were his brother Daniel and his eventual brother-in-law, Mathias Wenrich; all three men "recruited" other young farmers from throughout the county to join the cause as they made their way to Reading with their prisoners.
In his petition, Hain mentioned that his servants and team of horses were "constantly at the service of the government."
The pension was denied because his commission had been lost and he had outlived everyone who had served with him or known him, "so there was no one living who would be able to swear to his three years service with the army."
Back at Arlington National Cemetery, Lyle Smith paused to listen to a chorus of buglers celebrating the 150th anniversary of "Taps." He saluted and said, "That is for every man and woman who kept this country free, God bless them."
Over by the grave of World War II Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy, John Grey played "Taps" on his bugle, wearing an Air Force uniform. The Pelham, Ga., native served in Vietnam; his teenage grandchildren stood in awe around a nearby oak tree as the familiar song filled the air.
We can never forget all who have served, Grey said when he finished, adding: "Without them, who would we be?"
Note: Frederick Hain is my great grandfather times 9 – his home and grist mill still stand in Berks County Pennsylvania – they are both on the National Registry.