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The character of the Arlington Cemetery and the Vietnam Memorial ceremonies are very different. Arlington attendees tend to be WW II and Korean War-era veterans or American Legion and VFW members in their blue or red blazers and garrison caps, while Vietnam Memorial attendees tend to be younger Vietnam-era vets in leather vests, cammies, and/or fatigue caps.
Arlington National Cemetery
The Arlington ceremonies are very formal, opening with a military band concert and a keynote address traditionally given by the President or Vice-President. The event is attended by the SecDef, the VA chief, and a handful of other cabinet members, along with representatives of foreign military delegations in their dress uniforms who sit in the boxes ringing the amphitheater. The speech is preceded by the wreath-laying ceremony by the President at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the rear of the amphitheater. You'll have to choose viewing either the wreathlaying or the speeches, as the tight security won't allow you to do both. And speaking of security, even though the ceremony starts at 11 am, you'll need to be on the site by 9 am to make your way through security and up to the Amphitheater.
At 5 pm in the afternoon, Civil War reenactors in their uniforms (resembling veterans) will hold a traditional Civil War "Remembrance Day" commemmoration at Arlington National Cemetery, marking the original recognition of that day to remember the Civl War dead. The November 11th Veterans Day ceremonies, on the other hand originally recognized those who gave their lives in World War I.
The Vietnam Memorial ceremonies, in contrast, are pretty informal - folding chairs or standing room on the lawn, a few short speeches, and less formally-dressed attendees and tourists. Some years, new names had been added to the Wall, with the family members sitting in the front rows. You can mingle with the participants afterwards, which is something you won't be able to do at Arlington. The ceremonies start at 1 pm, so you can head to the Vietnam Memorial after the Cemetery events - it's a healthy walk across the Memorial Bridge and it'll give you a chance to compare the two ceremonies.
Memorial Day has become memorable for something else in DC: Rolling Thunder. This is a celebration in honor of Vietnam Vets by motorcyclists. When it started, it was just motorcyclists who were themselves Vietnam Vets. Now everyone has gotten into the act--and that means thousands of motorcycles. One thing you do not want to do on Memorial Day is take a bus tour of any kind. You will inevitably end up stuck in traffic. Even crossing the street can be difficult while the parade of motorcycles goes by. It is, however, quite a parade as there are thousands of motorcycles. Everything is very polite, so please do not get the idea of this being a "wild guys on motorcycles" event. It isn't. It is a celebration in honor of the vets. Some people come every year just to watch the parade.
Bring bottled water and an umbrella. Both ceremonies are held outdoors, and because of the time of year, it is highly likely that it will rain.
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