50 Years: Dan Gritsko's Unforgettable Visit To Arlington National Cemetery
WorldStrides is celebrating 50 years as the leader in student travel by sharing the stories that have shaped our company’s past and will propel us into the future. Throughout the year, we will highlight stories from our history, many of the people who have made us what we are today, and some of the special ways travelers have been impacted by their experiences in our blog series, 50 Years of WorldStrides Stories.
Dan Gritsko serves as WorldStrides‘ Director of Christian Discoveries programs and has been a part of the WorldStrides team for 25 years. While working as a Course Leader in 2009, he had a memorable, moving experience with a Christian Discoveries group visiting Washington, D.C. In his own words, Dan shares a story he will never forget.
One of the ways that I have served students and teachers over my 25 years of working at WorldStrides is by being a course leader. In March 2009, I was leading a Christian Discoveries group that I have known for many years. The group had two buses, and the school did not have a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We did have a wreath so they would be able to do a wreath laying at the Challenger Memorial, however.
That day at Arlington I asked Marsha, my friend and the school administrator, if she would like to do the wreath laying at the Challenger Memorial, or would she rather go to Section 60 where they were burying soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although I had never done it before, I suggested to her that I thought it might be more meaningful place to do it. She wanted to give Section 60 a try.
We then walked the group near that area of the cemetery and I stopped to explain to the students what we were about to do. I told them that we were going to place a wreath in honor of those who have died serving our country in Iraq. I also told them that they needed to be very respectful in this part of the cemetery as it had many fresh graves. Section 60, at the time, was full of very recent graves and you see 2005, 2006, 2007, etc.
We went to the area and I had them wait while I went searching for a particular grave. I was looking for the grave of Ross McGinnis who is buried in that section. He is one of four Medal of Honor recipients from the war in Iraq, and also featured in our Christian Discoveries Journal. As I hunted around, I was unable to locate his grave. This part of the cemetery had many more graves than when I had last been there the summer before. As I continued to look around, I noticed a well-dressed couple standing at a grave. I cannot recollect exactly what went through my mind, but I approached them and asked them if this was the grave of their son.
They answered yes.
I explained that I was with a group of students who had come to this section of the cemetery to place a wreath in honor of the soldiers who died serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I asked if it would be okay to place the wreath at the grave of their son. The father said yes and the mother started crying. I asked them if we could pray for them and if they would like to tell us about their son. Again, they said yes.
I went over to my group, trying to compose myself. I explained to them, by saying, “If you look over there, you see that Mom and Dad. They are standing at the grave of their son. They have agreed to allow us to go and place a wreath on his grave and to have us pray for them. They are going to also tell us about their son, Daniel.”
I brought the group over to the grave, all 74 of them.
Mr. Bennett, the father, told us how his son Daniel didn’t like school but had wanted to be a soldier. He had been a Marine who served in Iraq, came home, and then went to serve in Afghanistan. He had been a Marine for 2.5 years and was killed the preceding October in Afghanistan. There weren’t many dry eyes among us at that point.
After he finished speaking, one of the teachers prayed a very sweet prayer for them. At that point, I had an idea that we might want to sing a song but in that hushed silence there was no way I was going to suggest it. The school administrator went over to the other course leader and asked him to lead us in song as he has a really good voice. We sang, “God Bless America.” After the song, it felt like we were at a memorial service. I wasn’t sure what to do so I slowly walked about 20 yards away and waited.
At that point, students and parents began to go up to Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, hug them, and pray for them one or two at a time. After a while, the group met me and we walked a couple hundred yards away. I stopped the group and asked them if they had anything they wanted to say. One of the teachers said that when I first walked away to look for the original grave, she had noticed the Bennetts and prayed that I would notice them. A student also shared the same thing. God did answer their prayers. The group was deeply touched by our time at the cemetery and also had an opportunity to bring comfort to the Bennetts. The school got the Bennetts’ address and made contact with them after the trip.
This was what I refer to as a “God moment.” A time where things were ordered in a way that we could never have set up. As we left the area, I kept looking back every so often. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett were still standing at Daniel’s grave. It stands as a reminder to me of their loss of a dear son, but also of a small way that we were able to bring them comfort.
While we can take no credit for how all of this happened, it was one of the most moving things I have ever been a part of in my years of working at WorldStrides. Yet, in a larger sense, it was also part of the ‘tapestry’ of amazing things that can happen when young people step out of the classroom to experience the world around them.
Learn more about our Christian Discoveries programs.