We weren’t in Flanders, or anywhere remotely close. But this poem kept replaying over and over in my mind as E and I walked through Section 60 in Arlington Cemetery this weekend.
As you may or may not know, E is on active duty in the US Armed Forces. He has been for about a decade. He has deployed twice to what is not so affectionately termed “the sandbox.” Thankfully, he came back both times without harm. Some of his friends and superiors were not so lucky.
E and I have only been to Arlington together a few times. We were tourists, seeing Arlington House, the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Kennedy grave sites. We stuck to the well traveled path. We had never ventured to Section 60.
This particular area of Arlington is infamous among the military community. Among wives, it is almost whispered for fear the we tempt fate.
The Arlington that tourists know is busy, and hums with a hushed roar as stories are told and retold about the famous people buried here. Big old trees line the cracked blacktop roads and are scattered among the graves, sometimes pushing up headstones. The birth and death dates are old: 1821-1867, 1870-1912, 1900-1945. There are flowers, of course, but only here and there. Some of the families of these honored dead have themselves passed on or forgotten the resting place of their ancestor.
Down a more recently paved road, you pass under young trees not yet large enough to provide any shade worth mentioning. Closer to the visitor’s center, the grass is green and unbroken, save for those iconic white marble stones. As the numbers get larger, there are spots of raw earth and awnings to cover the grieving from the hot DC sun. It is eerily quiet. There is no wind, few birds, even the squirrels seem to move with respect for the dead. Some very recent graves don’t have stones, just black metal markers to show who rests in that spot.
The graves have flowers, pictures, mementos. There was one grave with a Marine Corps Marathon medal. As we passed by, I recognized the design from the 2012 running of the People’s Marathon. I ran, too. In my mind’s eye, I can see the runner who earned that medal just in front of the Marine Corps War Memorial last year. I can picture him, or her, quietly limping through the gates of the cemetery toward this particular place. I can see the quiet moment taken, the prayer said, the quiet one-sided conversation, telling the friend, “I ran for you. I ran with you, one last time. I wish we could have crossed the line together, but I knew you were there.”
And, yet, we were still not at our destination.
We turned down a shady road, lined by trees that must have been kept from an earlier time. Close to the road, the grass is unbroken and the dates are recent, but not in the very near past. 1970, 1980, 2005.
We moved toward the less populated area of the section. This is where those who fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan rest. The graves are very recent, with dates that jar you. 1970-2005, he was 35. 1978-2007, she was 29. 1986-2005, he was 19, he was my age, we could have been friends, been in the same class, gone to the same college. He could be 27 now.
Baby trees spread their leaves over a family having a picnic. Was it a special day for their loved one? A birthday, anniversary? They seemed happy and joyful to be sharing this moment with their hero, eating, drinking, and reminiscing together.
At first, we seemed to be wandering aimlessly, just looking, thinking about the lives cut short too soon. E pulled out his phone, and I knew we were going to be looking for specific people.
1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly. In E’s officer candidate course and the first of their schools. Lt. Kelly was E’s best friend’s other best friend. I knew his wife, not well, but enough. Enough to be devastated when he died, to have gotten lost in the what-if’s. Enough to send a card to her and to his mother. Enough to choke up when Team Kelly members passed me during the marathon, to look for his face on Haine’s Point.
Major Megan McClung. She was in E’s MOS (military occupational specialty) field. She is, to date, the only person in this job description’s officer cohort to be killed in action in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Our friend served under her, considered her a mentor and a friend.
E has others here. A buddy from his infantry unit, back when he was enlisted, killed in action while E was deployed with a different unit. Other Marines, Airmen, Sailors, and Soldiers that he honored as they left Afghanistan for the long journey to Dover, and beyond. Some are here, some are buried near their hometowns, or in other national cemeteries.
Walking the rows, reading the names, seeing the birthdays that are too close to your own. The pictures, the stuffed animals, the cards, the empty beer bottles.
How can you walk away with a dry eye?
As I watched CNN tonight, Wolf Blitzer droned on and on and on about Syria and the looming possibility of military action. it was all stats, and political risk. Facts and figures. There was no mention of the already-stretched-thin military members, or their families. They have been on quick turn-around deployment mode for over a decade now, with sometimes just months between hello and good-bye again. All I could think was, “Again? How many more do we need to lose? How many lives cut short? How many widows and widowers, how many children without their mother or father, parents without their child?”
Coming directly after our visit this weekend, it is particularly poignant.
Note: This post deliberately has no pictures. While pictures are allowed in Arlington (except of funerals and funeral processions), it felt like an intrusion on the dignity of the brave men and women, and their families, to take anything but memories from this hallowed ground. I hope that you understand.