Even as America’s longest war grinds down, reminders of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan haunt Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where the crack of rifle salutes, the rattle of caissons and the sounding of “taps” still echo among thousands of orderly white tombstones, each marked by a freshly planted flag for this Memorial Day.
Of more than 6,700 service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 2001, more than 800 have been gathered in for final honors in Section 60, a five-acre subdivision of the 624-acre cemetery. In this corner of Arlington, the cemetery’s most active area, Navy SEALs rest alongside Army helicopter pilots, and Marine riflemen keep company with the Air Force daredevils known as para-rescue jumpers, accompanied by long missing warriors recently repatriated from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
The community of the living, streaming in from all points of the compass, keep Section 60 buzzing with conversation and activity, as visitors bring birthday cards, balloons, rubber ducks, stuffed bears, high school pictures, faded letters, brass cartridge cases, memorial stones, football tickets, medals and offerings of beer, cigarettes and booze for friends and family violently snatched away in wartime. Nothing can bring them back, but for many survivors, this postage stamp of earth remains the final point of contact between the world of the living and the world of the dead, a place for mourning, for remembering, and for showing that someone still cares.
That’s why Paula Davis keeps fresh flowers on the grave of her 19-year-old son Justin, an Army private killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province in 2006. She clips the thick grass over his grave with scissors, scrubs his tombstone and tapes laminated photographs of a handsome young man in camouflage on Grave No. 60-8406 for everyone to see. “Justin had the most beautiful smile,” she said, showing where he got it. “That’s what I want people to see, so he’s not just a name and number on a tombstone.”
After a dozen years of nonstop conflict, only a few rows remain to be filled in Section 60, where the whole story of America’s most recent wars can be traced on tombstones that speak of sacrifice and betrayal, instinctive bravery and dreadful luck, of young men throwing themselves onto grenades to shield fellow warriors, of young female pilots shot from the sky by hostile fire, of lives erased by the signature weapons that have become depressingly familiar in the new lexicon of conflict — insider attacks, improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs, and the corrosive effects of post traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s always a shock to see how many new tombstones have been added,” said Chase Martin, 27, a former Marine corporal who served as a machine gunner in Iraq and Afghanistan and has the scars to prove it. Critically injured by an IED during house-to-house fighting in Fallujah in 2006, Martin was evacuated from Iraq, endured more than 30 surgeries to save his ravaged left arm, overcame the depredations of PTSD, and slowly began to piece his life together again.
Now a senior in Russian studies at American University in Washington with big plans for the future, Martin is a regular visitor to Section 60. He comes to pay homage to warriors he served with in Afghanistan and Iraq, to recall their final moments, and to speak their names to anyone who will listen: Army Cpl. George A. Lutz II, Marine SSgt. Javier Orlando Ortiz Rivera, Marine Sgt. Mark Phillip Adams, Navy Corpsman Travis L. Youngblood. “These guys don’t have a voice anymore,” he said, kneeling to touch the grave of Pfc. Kyle Brown, the first Marine he saw killed in Fallujah. “So it’s up to those of us who are still here to remember who they were and what they did. Each of them made an impression.”
Martin himself might easily have ended on the wrong side of the turf at Arlington if not for a pair of fast-thinking comrades — Sgt. Stephen Manley and Cpl. Dave Babrew — who dragged him out of harm’s way when he was blown out of a Humvee and wrapped his badly mangled arm in a tourniquet in November 2006. He had already lost more than half of his blood by the time they stanched the flow. “I was so cold and it was harder and harder to breathe, I’d lost so much blood. They kept the pressure on the wound until I could get out,” said Martin, who pleaded with doctors not to amputate his arm, lied to them about feeling sensations in his hand and slowly, painstakingly regained about 30 percent of the function in his injured limb.
Walking around Arlington, he flexed his fingers to show how they still worked and rolled up his sleeve to reveal a neatly rendered tattoo of a tourniquet on his left bicep, commemorating his near-death experience. The tattoo is a permanent tribute to the Marines who saved him, and a reminder of the random recruitment process for Section 60, where a fraction of an inch or a lost minute makes the difference between a life lost and a life saved. “Dumb luck, no question about it.” said Martin. “It’s just dumb luck.”
Like others who will flock to Arlington today, Martin is a human link in the long chain of soldiers, sailors, airmen and other warriors from Civil War days. More than 300,000 people are buried in the rolling green hills across the Potomac River from Washington. Most of them have arrived since the nation’s first Decoration Day on May 30, 1868. That date, chosen for the season when spring flowers were at their peak, was set aside by the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army’s largest veterans’ group, to decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers killed in the nation’s deadliest war.
Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, a Republican congressman from Illinois who also commanded the Grand Army, urged fellow soldiers to visit Arlington and cherish “tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.”
Hundreds answered Logan’s summons, lavished fresh bouquets on the graves of their comrades and clustered around the former home of Gen. Robert E. Lee at the heart of Arlington for a day of patriotic speeches, sermons and singing. The scars of the Civil War were still fresh on that first Decoration Day, and Confederates were decidedly unwelcome in the new national cemetery.
That changed as the nation healed and North and South reunited. New wars were fought, Arlington grew, and Decoration Day was rechristened as Memorial Day in 1888. It was declared a new national holiday, a time to remember those who suited up, went into battle and never came home.
Mr. Poole, author of “On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery,” wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.