May 31, 2010— -- At Arlington National Cemetery, the start of summer has always been the soberest of days, with the white gravestones eternally at attention decorated in red, white and blue.
In the 142 years since the first Memorial Day, nearly a million American lives have been lost in nine wars. Today, military members saluted the fallen soldiers as civilians placed their hands over their heavy hearts.
"We pause today to remember them," Vice President Joe Biden said. "They gave their lives fulfilling their oath to this nation and to us."
Biden laid the ceremonial wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, calling military members the "spine of this nation."
Back in Arlington, Section 60 of the cemetery, where America's most recent casualties of war are buried, is a place where you can't escape the true meaning of the day.
"We used to think Memorial Day was a day of picnics and going to the beach, a day off from work," Michael Belle said. "It was a holiday."
For the Belle family of Fairfax, Virginia, all that changed five years ago.
"It was Mother's Day 2005, Mother's Day, they came to the door at 9 o'clock that night," Beth Belle said, informing them their son Lance Corporal Nicholas Kirven had been killed clearing a cave in Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately we learned it the hard way, but it has given us such a deeper meaning for what this day is all about," Beth Belle said.
The Belles are among a tight-knit group of families who come here every year, starting a new Memorial Day tradition. They offer words of comfort and support to the other families here and tend graves for those who live far away.
Section 60 has been called the saddest acre in America. It's not only the fastest growing part of Arlington National Cemetery; on Memorial Day, it's the busiest because for these families and friends the loss is still fresh. For the families here, the loss is still fresh.
Last week, the war in Afghanistan passed a grim milestone: 1000 soldiers killed since the start of the conflict. Only about one out of ten men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan end up at Arlington. Many service members choose instead to be buried at cemeteries closer to their family homes.
But the plots in Section 60 are filling up so fast, the cemetery has already broken ground on Section 61. Last week marked the grim milestone of 1,000 soldiers dead in the war in Afghanistan.
"When you drive through that gate, it hits home," said Lisa Philippon of West Hartford, Connecticut, the mother of Lance Corporal Lawrence Philappon who was killed in Iraq in 2005. Lisa Philippon, the mother of a fallen soldier, said. "You're blessed to be here and at the same time, there's a sharp pain.
Lieutenant Colonel Andras Marton has been coming here since 2003, after he was injured in a grenade attack in Kuwait. His friend, Maj. Gregory Stone, died in that attack, becoming one of the first casualties in the Iraq War.
"I survived and he did not," Marton said. "It's just emotional for me to always remember every day that God's given me another day to fight. That's why we come out here to pay our respects."
Maj. Rebecca Eggers came to remember her husband.
"I really just miss having him around, just knowing that he was there," Eggers said. "And I wish he could see his kids grow up."
In the midst of the heavy melancholy, there were smiles, too. Military men and women reunited with their families.
One female soldier said, "To come home and celebrate with the ones that we left behind is just an honor and it's a blessing."
Perhaps even sweeter because it's on Memorial Day.