“A rose from Holly”

The families don't know her, but she knows their lost sons and daughters.
And she spends a lot of time in Arlington, Virginia, making sure they aren't forgotten.

Published February 18, 2007
Courtesy of John Barry and the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times

ARLINGTON, Virginia – The widows and children had bundled themselves in parkas and snowsuits. They looked very young, standing in a frozen field of white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.

It was 18 degrees, and the wind was blowing at a raw 20 mph. Each one clutched a screwdriver to punch holes in the icy ground. Holly darted among them with boxes of silk roses, her head bobbing above theirs.

She is a 6-foot-2 blond with the lanky physique of a model, except layered in sweatshirts. “Amazon infidel,” she calls herself.


She is out among the headstones every week and knows the stories behind every one. The widows and the kids took the roses and scattered among the headstones of Section 60. It's the section set aside for men and women killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 300 are laid to rest there.The widows made their way through the rows. At their husbands' graves, they knelt and punched at the stiff sod with their screwdrivers. Some of them had small hammers, and you could hear their tap-tapping. The children helped. When they had made their holes, they inserted the wire stems of the silk red roses. They knelt quietly in the wind.

The word had gone out by Internet that Holly would be at Section 60 on the Saturday before Valentine's Day. Last year, she spread most of the roses herself. But this year, widows and children, mothers and fathers had heard about this woman named Holly and drove or flew in from all over the country. There were about 50 of them.

Almost no one knew her full name: Holly Holeman. She was just Holly to them, a mysterious e-mailer who had sent photos of headstones, of flowers by the graves. All year, the e-mails came, far-off reassurances that someone was taking care of the graves.

Eventually, they learned that her day job is making floral arrangements and delivering them to funerals at Arlington.

Holly had found the families through a Web site run by a Long Island businessman named Michael Patterson. It has biographies and news accounts of all American casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan buried in Section 60. Patterson started it while researching the history of the cemetery for a book he has always wanted to write. Now keeping up the Web site has overtaken his book.

He got one of Holly's mysterious e-mails one day. “She wouldn't give me her last name. She said, ‘Here's a photo of a new headstone. Use it if you think it's worthwhile.' ” He did, and soon she was sending dozens more photos. He posted them: Courtesy of Holly.

The families tried to figure it out. Each thought about the day of the funeral. Was she that tall woman they saw standing in the distance, the one partly behind a tree?

Paula Davis ran into her a year ago on her regular Sunday visit to the grave of her son Justin. He was 19 when he died last June on a rooftop in southeastern Afghanistan. Friendly fire was the suspected cause.

Davis lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland, so she gets by to visit all the time, haunted by the fear that her son and all the others in Section 60 will soon be forgotten. She pictures a silent field, no visitors. “People go on with their lives,” she says.

One Sunday, a tall, fast-talking woman approached Davis. She offered oatmeal cookies and coffee. Davis learned this woman wasn't about to forget anyone.

Everybody has a story like that. Beth Downs had randomly called a florist shop near Arlington Cemetery from her Florida home in Fort Walton Beach. She wanted a spray of flowers for her husband's new grave. She happened to get Holly on the phone.

Her husband, Air Force Major William Brian Downs, 40, had died in a crash in Iraq on May 30, 2005. He was helping train an Iraqi air force. He was aboard a Russian prop plane with three other airmen and an Iraqi pilot, surveying emergency landing strips. No one knows why the plane crashed or even who was flying it.

Each of the four Americans was buried separately. Then a later service was held for commingled remains of all five on the plane. The lost Iraqi pilot, Captain Ali Abass, became the only Iraqi laid to rest in Section 60.

The group funeral was a major political event, with a military contingent from Iraq present and the national media covering it. Holly saw a stunned young widow with three small children and hung back. Afterward, Beth went looking for the original grave that held most of her husband's remains. Holly drove past, stopped and introduced herself. She apologized at the same time, Beth recalls. “She said she wanted me to have privacy.”

They didn't meet again until the Saturday before Valentine's.

Floridians Lee and Janine Woodliff had flown from Port Charlotte to Arlington Cemetery for their son's (Michael)birthday last August 20. He would have been 24. He was killed when a bomb blew apart his Humvee in Iraq on March 2, 2004. His parents had brought with them two suitcases packed with 300 silk roses. They spent two days putting one on each grave site.

“On the second day, Holly was there,” Lee Woodliff says. “In a very kind and gentle way, she said she would help if we ever wanted anything.”

Her photos of their son's headstone began arriving after they got home.

Jill Cockerham from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says Holly knew all about her son Gray, a Marine, before they even met at the cemetery. She had read about him on Patterson's Web site. Gray Cockerham, 21, was killed by a roadside bomb on August 21, 2005.

“She knew about my son in elementary school.”

As she talked on the Saturday before Valentine's Day, Cockerham made her way down the frozen rows with her rose and screwdriver. She surveyed the field.

“Each year the rows get deeper.”

Among Holly and the families, gray-haired Tom Guggliuzza circulated with jugs of cocoa and coffee. He's retired. He's supposed to be living in Bangor, Pennsylvania. He came for his nephew's funeral at Arlington two years ago and never went home. He is at Section 60 three to five days a week. He reads to the dead.

Families send him letters, poems and books. He sits on a golf stool at grave sites and reads out loud. “I've learned to love these kids,” he said. He was there on the previous Thursday, at the funeral for Army Specialist Nicholas Brown, 24, who was killed by a bomb on January 22. Tom saw Brown's widow, Sara, standing in the frigid wind with a month-old baby.

He said he has stayed longer in Virginia than he ever expected, but “I just can't leave them.” He senses their spirits.

“I go through boxes of tissues,” Tom said, pointing to a half-empty box of Kleenex beside him on the ground.

Holly doesn't cry.

“I'm here for the living,” she said. She worries she might be off-putting to some families. She's taller than most of them; she flings sentences so fast they can't catch them all; she fears she appears “seemingly emotionless.” She often hangs back. “I'm a little hard to take. I'm a stoic. I don't do tears with the widow. But I'm good in a trench.”

She's single and works in a flower shop, on her feet all day binding blossoms together for weddings, birthdays, apologies and sad goodbyes. That's all she'll say about herself; this is about the soldiers.

She remembers the first one to come to Arlington National Cemetery from the Iraq war. He was Army Captain Russell Rippetoe, 27. He had manned a nighttime checkpoint in western Iraq on August 3, 2003. A car full of civilians approached. A pregnant woman got out and ran toward the soldiers, screaming. Rippetoe stepped toward her, and the car exploded. Rippetoe and two other soldiers were killed.

Holly was to deliver a floral arrangement to the funeral. An Army Ranger called her and asked her to bring along a camera to take a picture of the flowers. That was how it all started.

The mothers got to her. Her own mother had a philosophy about soldiers who die. Their wives go on; their mothers can't.

Holly stays behind, after the bugle has blown. The mothers know that she's there.

Most of the families had left by late afternoon. They had talked about getting together again at Easter to take the roses up. Holly saves them each year, sewing them on a blanket that she sometimes brings to Section 60 and lays under a large holly tree.

They all drove away. Holly dropped off leftover oatmeal cookies at the guardhouse at the Tomb of the Unknowns. She twisted the wire stem of a silk rose onto the crypt of her father, a sergeant in counterintelligence during World War II. He was 6-8. She got her height from him.

The day was fading. Her last chore was her strays. These were men and women technically not killed in action in Iraq, and therefore not buried in Section 60.

They are on Holly's rose list nonetheless.

So down the road at Section 66, she stopped her car at the grave of Taryn Ashley Robinson, 22, daughter of a major general. Her death last year was, in Holly's words, “the saddest, damnedest thing I've ever heard.”

She had been an Air Force Academy graduate, a second lieutenant. She had been taking flight lessons in San Antonio, Texas. On Sept. 5, 2005, her small plane struck a giant power line.

The plane exploded, killing the instructor. She managed to crawl out of the wreckage on fire, her neck broken. A passerby found her, 80 percent of her body burned. She died in a burn unit after four months in an induced coma.

Holly knelt at her grave, punched her screwdriver in the ground, planted the silk rose. She remained kneeling. Her hands were red, windburned.

Taryn really belongs down the road in Section 60, she said.

“For my money, she's one of them.”

On the web
An online memorial

Michael Patterson has created a Web site of stories and photos of all the troops buried at Arlington National Cemetery who were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. See https://www.arlingtoncemetery.net.

A Message From Holly

18 February 2007

This morning, Mr. Barry’s piece was published and I thank him for taking an interest in the event and the families of ANC.  I’ve been over a week in trying to put together a narrative that would do justice to how grateful I am to the families and volunteers and the phenomenal Patriot Guard Riders  who turned out on a very cold day to make the rose installation this year so very special to me.

Since the week after last year’s placement I began to find families out there who wanted very much to be a part of subsequent  events.  It was no surprise to me that even after the roses had been removed, families wanted to be involved with an event they had yet to actually see.  It was no surprise, because I’ve met more than a few of you, and I know  how much you care about what happens at ANC.  I know that  families would participate in events honoring their loved ones if at all possible.  With the magic of Patterson’s website everyone can see what happens out there. ( a continual, profound thank you to him)

I’d set out this morning to ANC to tend to some photos for the Sainted Mr. Patterson, and to take some things in for families, and make sure that any new sites had roses of their own.   I’d intended to come back here and write a narrative to do justice to the event of the 10th, which is long overdue.   I will do that, I hope.  Something happened out at ANC today which I realize I should recount, in the full telling of how proud I am of the families and the Rose installation.

On my first pass this morning in to 60 (York side),  folks from the Carver,ZieglerLetendre Kirven (Belle) and Kyle Brown’s families were present.  After my sidetrips onto to the glacier that is Section 7A and the tundra of Section 13 above the Tomb, I came back down Bradley and added the rose for the newest temp marker there.

Andy Anderson’s mom was parked over at York. I drove around that way to see her.  While we talked,  4 cars and a truck with a satellite strapped to it rolled up.  Out the side of the cars came people with buckets of fresh roses. Out of the Satellite truck came the lady with the blue tipped microphone in her hand.  The  people with the buckets roved up into the front rows of 60.  I asked the news lady who these people were.  She said they were from a Woodbridge flower shop and with Valentines day going bust in the snow they had these roses left and ‘would have to throw them away anyway’.   She said the lady owner of the shop called them to tell them about it.. ‘ It’s a great story’ she said.

As we stood there next to Bradley Beard’s stone.. I asked the lady,..’ did you not notice that these sites already have roses?’.  ‘Those were put there by the families last week. They’ll stay until mid April.’  She asked,  “What’s the name of the group that sponsored it?”… I repeated..”It was done by the Families of these people.  THAT’s the group.”

I suggested she look up arlingtoncemetery.net when she got back to the office, since Patterson had already told me he’d linked the Barry story to the front page of the website.

Frankly I hope she, who works for an ABC affliliate, hasn’t found the site yet,. I’d kinda like this posted before she does.  Moments ago I saw the story she filed on this.  They’d spent some film in the back of the Woodbridge shop talking about poor valentines that won’t get their roses– they were talking about the cancelled deliveries that gave them this overflow of roses. They intended placing 2 roses a piece at each site.   The  owner said that she was moved to this deed  (after the Valentines storm)  because of sending roses for a soldier over the holiday. She shared that thought in the part of  the  piece that was shot over on the Bradley side under the shelter used for the last service there. (They wouldn’t have ventured to Bradley had I not told the owner lady that  the sites she was looking for were on both sides of the snowcovered field.  I told her she’d know the sites when she saw them, they’d be the ones with the roses already).

When they came back across to York a couple of the girls began to collect the roses from where they were scooting on the ice in the 20mph wind and tucked them in behind the silk roses at some stones. That was a good effort, until their boss barked for them to hurry up.  I looked over and saw them packing roses back into the cars. The young ladies said ‘ were just putting them where they’ll stay put’… The owner said, come on.. “We’re going to another section.”

I went back over to Bradley to take some pictures .. That’s where they shot the bit of  interview I saw, and where  they put roses only here and there before leaving.

The wrap up by the reporter said that this tribute to Honor the Fallen had ‘warmed the hearts of those who particpated, and visitors’… They caught a bit of one of the shop ladies saying how grateful she was to be there helping, and the  token visitor was someone they caught on Memorial Drive who must have caught them filming the ANC marquee when they arrived.

Imagine for a moment that ‘warmed the heart’ is not the assessment of my feeling if surveyed,  and I think Anderson’s mom would concur.

Today, to see those strangers roll in for a photo opportunity *read as good advertising -was one thing, but to leave without finishing what they said they were there to do is an image I’ll be some time shaking. Having seen them load the buckets and leave irked me. The reporter said that they’d placed 720 roses for 360 soldiers from Operation Iraqi Freedom.  THAT  is not what happened, folks. (and I know there are 2 theatres.. I read)

Normally I’d have spared you this sort of news, but it’s been the mental tofu I’ve chewed on all afternoon,– and I tell you, it’s just getting bigger in my jaw.   So why am I sharing such an unpalatable tidbit?  Because  it leads me back to the core reason I’m proudest of this year’s rose event.   It’s because it was the families’ event.  If I can afford to be proud of anything its in having managed to give this one over to the families. The families participating in the field and those who’ve been waiting for some more information on how it all turned out are what make it so special.

On the 10th, when the families were gathered and their friends and the (can’t say enough about ‘em) Patriot Guard Riders were out there in the cold set out to do right by everyone, themselves— THAT was what the event was about.   The presence of the families.

Two of the young ladies who were in the crew today might not have seen it, but they showed some sense in caring  that the roses they placed weren’t staying put.   I’m  glad for their sake that YOUR roses were there to help hold the flowers given to your family by them.

Every time I go out and see your roses there,  I know I will see the presence of the families. I hope everyone, someday, sees that.

I appreciate the time given, care taken, and sacrifice made by everyone involved in the February 10 installation of the Roses  and that of everyone who has paid dearly the price of admission to ANC.

I appreciate the friends who volunteered and the Patriot Guard Riders who were absolutely phenomenal in helping to make the installation so incredibly fast on a very blustery day.

It was so fast that I did not get to take the photos I’d intended to.  If anyone took some they’d care to share with Patterson, I’m certain he’ll give them a good home.

The link to the photo album of the ‘walk through’ I did the following morning at sunrise will be sent by email to everyone I can contact that way.

Thank you again, as always, for suffering me.

PS… SAME TIME NEXT YEAR.  (and I’ll see some of you in April to collect the roses)

Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment