At Arlington National Cemetery, those words echo every day, as soldiers from wars past, and present, are laid to rest in a graveyard steeped in history.
Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun
By John Woestendiek, Sun Staff
Originally published September 14, 2003
A cold wind whipped through Section 60.
It stripped cherry blossoms from their branches, sending old buds and new to the muddy ground like spent confetti.
It brought limp flags to life, masking the not-quite-silent background hum of funerals – stifled sobs, cleared throats and hushed voices – with the crisp and gently reassuring sound of fabric slapping itself.
And it made Joe Rippetoe's pesky right shoulder so stiff that, when it was time to salute – to face the general, accept the flag and hear the words, “On behalf of a grateful country … ” – the former Army Ranger, disabled in Vietnam, had to use his left hand to guide his right into position.
Rippetoe, an old soldier, was burying a young one. His son, Captain Russell B. Rippetoe, 27, an Army Ranger killed in an April 3 car-bomb explosion, was the first casualty in the war with Iraq to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Since that dreary April 10, thirty more have come, from Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, to the 624 rolling green acres along the Potomac regarded as the most hallowed ground in America.
Thirty-one times, from April to August, a lone bugler played taps, a seven-soldier squad fired a three-shot salute, and the American flag was folded into a tight triangle and presented to a widow or parent whose loss was tempered – even if only slightly – by the honor of an Arlington burial.
“You would have thought he was a president,” Rippetoe, 66, said afterward. “I was awed at what all they did.”
When Arlington became a cemetery – 139 years ago, on seized land, in an act of vengeance – it was among the last places a family would want a loved one buried. Eight wars and 287,000 bodies later, it is considered both a national symbol and treasure.
Somehow, while conducting up to 30 funerals a day, it manages to avoid the aura of an assembly line, leaving survivors of young and old soldiers alike with the sense that their loved one has received one-of-a-kind treatment.
Somehow, despite periodic scandals over who gets buried there, it maintains a reputation as pure as the marble headstones that dot the hillsides.
Somehow, despite recurrent fears that it will run out of space, it keeps finding space – by annexing property, conserving land and tightening regulations – to ensure that the only national cemetery with veterans of all U.S. wars continues to bury those who have sacrificed for their country.
“People say, ‘You're going to have to close eventually at some point, aren't you?' And I say, ‘I hope not,” says Arlington Superintendent John Metzler, who literally grew up in the cemetery, the son of an earlier superintendent. “There should always be an Arlington Cemetery. Unfortunately, our country will continue to have people die in the service. We need a special place to bury our heroes.”
Until last year, the cemetery faced reaching capacity in 2025. That is far longer than anyone expected, either in the 1880s, or after World War I, or after World War II – all periods when it looked like Arlington would close. Each time, though, it found a way to extend its life.
To conserve space, Arlington began “tiering” or stacking caskets of family members in graves in the early 1960s. Later, it began restricting burials; they're now limited to long-serving or highly decorated veterans, and soldiers on active duty.
More recently, the cemetery has reduced the space allotted for cremated remains, limited headstones to standard issue, and made plans to move all underground utility lines so that they run under roads, freeing up more space for graves.
With the addition of 12 acres of National Park Service land this year, and expected transfers of adjoining Army and Navy land, officials now say there is enough space for burials to continue until 2060.
“My mission is to make the cemetery last for as long as possible,” Metzler says. “That's number one on my list.”
But it is far from the only concern. There are 5 million visitors passing through each year. There are 500 acres of lawn to cut, and 202,000 gravestones to trim around. And, most important, there are 25 to 30 funerals to carry out each day.
With most World War II veterans well into their 80s and Korean War veterans not far behind, national cemeteries are busier today than at any time since the Civil War. Deaths among veterans are expected to peak in 2008, and the Veterans Administration, which oversees all of the 131 national cemeteries except Arlington and the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Cemetery in Washington, projects 110,000 national cemetery burials that year.
The government has provided free burials to veterans since 1873, though only about 10 percent of veterans choose them. Operated by the Army, Arlington is not the largest national cemetery – Calverton National Cemetery in New York, with more acres, buries about 50 a day – but it is the best known, the only one to use horse-drawn caissons as a routine part of its full honors funerals and the resting place of hundreds of notables, including John Kennedy, Audie Murphy, Omar Bradley, Medgar Evers and Abner Doubleday.
In ceremonies that often overlap – it's not unusual to attend one funeral and hear taps from another – Arlington pays well-choreographed final respects to dozens of veterans a day before lowering them into its increasingly precious ground, though that part is done behind the scenes.
Arlington does not allow the public – not even the family – to view the lowering of the casket, or the backhoe covering it with dirt. Those aren't part of picture they want to present.
Being next door to the Pentagon, and under the Army's control, Arlington, as one would expect, exudes patriotism. In the visitor center and on tour buses, the unending vistas of headstones are said to reflect not the toll war takes, but the “cost of freedom.”
Still, the sheer number of headstones can't help but make one wonder, as President Kennedy did on his first visit to Arlington, a year before his assassination, why “man's capacity to devise new ways of killing his fellow men have far outstripped his capacity to live in peace with his fellow man.”
While ill will led to Arlington becoming a cemetery, it was, only a few decades later, well on its way to a new image, becoming the revered institution it is today – a place, says Thomas L. Sherlock, Arlington's historian, where American soldiers are “woven into American history and never forgotten.”
“Despite its humble beginnings, despite the fact that it probably began as a slap, it has come full circle now,” he says. “It has come to represent patriotism, love for country, self-sacrifice – characteristics that bridge any divisions.
“Funerals are the vibrant part, the vital part of the cemetery,” he adds. “People ask, ‘How could a cemetery be living?' Well, every day it grows, not just in numbers, but in the stories and experiences of those buried here. The cumulative history of Arlington expands every day, our cumulative wealth expands every day.”
To Rippetoe, the service at Arlington – the formality of the ceremony, the history of the place, the spotlessness of the grounds, the respect exhibited – all helped make some sense of his son's death.
The elder Rippetoe, who himself notified families of deaths as an Army casualty officer after his second tour of duty in Vietnam, has visited Arlington frequently since his son's funeral – the first of 28 Iraqi Freedom casualties buried there by the end of August, all in Section 60.
“When Russell was put in the ground that whole row was empty, and now it's full,” he says. “It's a sobering effect.”
Before it became America's most renowned burial ground, before it was a cemetery at all, Arlington was the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of George and Martha Washington.
Custis was the son of John Parke Custis – one of widow Martha Dandrige Custis' two children when she married Washington in 1759. John Parke Custis bought the land in 1778, intending to build a home there after the Revolutionary War. In 1782, while serving as an aide to Washington during the siege of Yorktown, he contracted a fever and died.
George and Martha Washington adopted his two youngest children. When the Washingtons died, George Washington Parke Custis inherited Arlington – and began building Arlington House atop the highest hill of the 1,100-acre estate, as a shrine to the nation's first president.
The house, based on the Temple of Theseus in Athens, would take nearly 20 years to complete, and inside it Custis accumulated the largest collection of George Washington memorabilia in the world.
He and his wife also raised a daughter, Mary, who in an 1831 ceremony held at Arlington House, married Robert E. Lee, a recent West Point graduate and Army officer and the son of three-term Virginia Gov. Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee.
The Lees would make Arlington House their home for much of the next 30 years – until the Civil War pushed them out.
Lee was an opponent of secession, but he was even more dismayed by talk in Congress and in President Buchanan's administration of invading the South, and he felt his first allegiance was to Virginia.
“A union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, had no charm for me,” he said.
He turned down an offer to lead the Union troops and a week later, before Virginia had joined the Confederacy, he accepted an offer to command Virginia's military forces.
At the end of the month, knowing Arlington House – on a hill overlooking Washington – would be of strategic importance, Lee sent his wife a letter, telling her to leave.
“War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you. … You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety.”
In mid-May, after sending only a few portraits of Washington away for safekeeping, Mary Custis Lee left Arlington House. By the end of the month, federal troops had crossed the river into Virginia, seizing the estate and using it as a headquarters.
During its occupation, some of its contents would be pilfered and, in 1864, the entire estate was confiscated by the federal government.
Based on a 1862 law calling for the taxation of property in “insurrectionary districts,” a $92.07 tax was levied on Arlington. Mary Custis Lee, in a wheelchair by then, sent a cousin to pay the tax, but tax commissioners refused to accept it, saying the law required the owner to appear personally.
After declaring Mrs. Lee delinquent, tax commissioners in 1864 put the land up for sale, and bought it – all illegally, the Supreme Court would later rule – making the home of the Confederate general the property of the federal government.
On April 14, 2003, under a clear blue sky, Marine First Lieutenant Frederick E. Pokorney Jr., 31, of Tonopah, Nevada, became the second Iraqi Freedom casualty to be buried at Arlington.
He was killed March 23 when a group of Iraqis in Nasiriyah, pretending to surrender, suddenly opened fire on a group of Marines.
At his funeral, after the three-shot salute was fired and taps was played, the flag held over Pokorney's casket during the Catholic service was crisply folded, and the neat triangle was handed to his wife, Chelle, who handed it to her young daughter.
As they knelt by the coffin after the service, the 2-year-old was heard asking her mother, “Where's Daddy?”
It was shortly after their daughter's birth, on Memorial Day in 2001, that Pokorney and his wife – who has a grandfather buried there – had visited Arlington.
“I want to be buried there,” she recalled him saying at the time. “It would be an honor.”
The bodies were piling up.
Most Civil War dead were buried in battlefield cemeteries, often without proper decorum or at a sufficient depth. A heavy rainstorm could move enough mud to make shallowly buried bodies – or parts thereof – hauntingly reappear.
But many of them ended up in Washington, brought there from battlefields, or perishing in local hospitals.
With bodies waiting 15 days or more for burial -being “stacked like cordwood,” an article in the Washington Intelligencer noted – public concerns arose, both about disease and respect.
Finding a place to bury the bodies – those that went unidentified and those not claimed by family or friends – fell to the the Army's quartermaster general, Montgomery C. Meigs.
The son of a Philadelphia doctor, Meigs attended West Point and went into the Army Corps of Engineers, serving under Robert E. Lee at one point, but not seeing his military career progress at anywhere near the rate of the former governor's son. Meigs was stuck at the rank of first lieutenant for 14 years, and to his disappointment, unlike Lee, he did not serve in the Mexican War.
Before the Civil War, Meigs had engineered the Washington aqueduct, bringing water to the city. He built the Cabin John Bridge – the largest masonry arch in the world. His achievements, historians note, were exceeded only by his ego. On both projects, he liberally engraved his name – on everything from valves to gatehouses. Even the fire hydrants fed by the aqueduct were marked “Meigs.”
Meigs was directing the reconstruction of the Capitol building's dome when, amid numerous spats with the architect, he was replaced and sent to the Dry Tortugas. But his fortunes changed after Lincoln's election. Meigs returned to Washington and was named quartermaster general for the Union army, a job he performed with great efficiency and passion.
His “soul seems on fire with indignation at the treason of these wicked men who have laid the deep plot to overthrow our government,” Meigs' wife wrote in a letter to her mother. ” … [He] looks so dreadfully stern when he talks of the rebellion that I do not like to look at him.”
His hatred of Confederates was fueled by the death of his son, John R. Meigs, an Army engineer killed by out-of-uniform Confederate soldiers – ambushed and shot in cold blood, according to some accounts; after he fired first, others maintain.
Meigs' hostility toward the Confederacy seemed particularly directed at Lee, whom he viewed as a traitor.
When – amid the increasing public criticism of burial practices – the secretary of war asked Meigs to begin surveying for new burial grounds, the quartermaster general had a quick answer: Arlington House and 200 acres around it.
That same day, June 15, 1864, his suggestion was approved, and there were 65 burials there. Records indicate Meigs actually got a head start, burying at least a dozen before the land was designated a cemetery.
Meigs ordered the first official graves be dug in Mrs. Lee's rose garden. When he returned two months later and found few graves in the garden – soldiers using the house were averse to having them so close – he became infuriated. He ordered 26 bodies brought from Washington and stood by to see that they were buried in the rose garden.
In less than six months, 7,000 soldiers had been buried at Arlington. By the end of the war, there would be 16,000.
As Mrs. Lee noted, in an 1866 letter to a friend, “They are even planted up to the very door without any regard to common decency.”
April 16, 2003, was an unseasonably warm spring day – and the first that would see two Iraqi Freedom casualties buried at Arlington.
One was Marine Captain Benjamin W. Sammis, 29, a Citadel graduate who had been in combat 16 days when his helicopter crashed 30 miles southwest of Baghdad.
The other was Army Staff Sergeant Nino D. Livaudais, 23, of Syracuse, New York, killed in the same ambush as Rippetoe, on April 3. Livaudais was born in the Philippines, and his late father, Howard, was a survivor of the Bataan Death March.
Livaudais, whose wife was pregnant with their third child, had left a letter before deploying – a common practice in some armed service units, like the Army Rangers. When he parachuted into Afghanistan the day after 9/11, he had already specified that, among other things, he wanted to be buried in Arlington.
April 17 saw three Iraqi Freedom funerals at Arlington: Marine Sergeant Michael V. Lalush, 23, from outside Roanoke, Virginia, killed in a helicopter crash March 30; Air Force Major Gregory Stone, 40, a divorced father of two from Idaho who died March 25 from injuries he received when a fellow officer tossed a grenade into a tent in Kuwait; and Marine Lance Corporal Patrick Nixon, 21, of Tennessee, killed along with Pokorney in the March 23 ambush.
Nixon's great-grandfather was in World War I, his grandfather was in World War II, and his father served in Vietnam.
Reading the names on headstones at Arlington, it's clear that military service runs in families – sometimes nonstop, from one generation to the next, from the Civil War on.
Montgomery C. Meigs, the man responsible for making Arlington a cemetery during the Civil War, was buried less than 100 feet from Mrs. Lee's rose garden after he died in 1892.
But, 111 years later, NBC's coverage of the war in Iraq contained this exchange:
Tom Brokaw: “General Meigs, based on your experiences … as you try to govern a place like Iraq, what would be your primary concern?”
General Montgomery C. Meigs: “Well, Tom, first of all, it – the administration — has to make a coherent credible effort to explain how long they're going to be there and for what.”
Among the hordes of retired generals hired to provide wartime commentary was the great-great-great-nephew of the Civil War's quartermaster general.
“Most historians give him credit for running the logistics of the first modern war,” says Meigs, who served 35 years in the Army – including tours in Vietnam, Desert Storm and Bosnia. He retired this year and is a visiting professor of world peace at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
His father, also named Montgomery C. Meigs, was a lieutenant colonel in the Army who was killed while commanding a tank battalion during World War II. Buried in France, he died a month before his son was born.
The modern-day Meigs lost a father to war; the Civil War-era Meigs lost a son, whose grave in Arlington is topped with a sculpture of the young man as he was found, lying on the ground, revolver at his side.
Meigs, after the Civil War, would go on to design and supervise construction of the Old Pension Building, now the National Building Museum, before he died and was buried under a large monument next to his son's.
Robert E. Lee would never return to Arlington – not even in death. He was buried in 1870 at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
In 1877, Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, filed suit to regain the property from the federal government – and won. After the Supreme Court upheld his claim, he sold the property to the government, ensuring its continued operation as a cemetery.
By then, Arlington was already close to running out of space – its original 200 acres filled with bodies and dotted with wooden grave markers, painted white, that cost the government $1.24 each. They lasted only five years before fading, leading the cemetery to switch to white marble markers in 1872.
After the Civil War, Arlington became home to freed slaves, many of whom flocked to Washington. A Freedmen's Village was established adjacent to the cemetery and remained until the 1890s, when it was abolished to make room for new graves. Although blacks were buried there, the cemetery would remain segregated until 1948.
By the 1890s, through annexing more land, Arlington had become the largest national cemetery, and had begun its transition from potter's field to a place of honor. Well-known officers were asking to be buried there. Ceremonies were being held, and memorials being built.
Originally founded to bury soldiers killed “in defense of the union,” it was turned into a cemetery for soldiers of all American wars. In 1892, four Revolutionary soldiers buried in Georgetown were reinterred at Arlington. In 1905, 14 unknowns from the War of 1812 were reinterred there.
And in 1906, in what was seen as an act of forgiveness and healing, Congress authorized a memorial to Confederate dead. All 409 Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington were reinterred around the memorial, but with different gravestones – with pointed tops instead of the standard flat ones. Legend has it they were designed to discourage Yankees from sitting on them.
By mid-April, the burial of Iraqi Freedom casualties was becoming an almost daily occurrence at Arlington:
On April 18, Army Sergeant Wilbert Davis, 40, of Georgia, killed when the Humvee he and journalist Michael Kelly were riding in went into a canal en route to Baghdad; on April 21, Army Private First Class Jason M. Meyer, 23, of Howell, Michigan, killed by a mortar round; on April 22, Army Captain Tristan N. Aitken, 31, from State College, Pennsylvania, killed by a round fired by a rocket launcher; and Air Force Staff Sergeant Jason C. Hicks, 25, a South Carolina newlywed who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan; on April 23, Army First Lieutenant Jeffrey J. Kaylor, 24, of Clifton, Virginia, killed in a grenade attack outside Baghdad.
Tragedy has a way of uniting a country, especially when it's not self-inflicted.
In 1898, the bombing of the battleship USS Maine did just that, and Arlington was the setting for the country to come together in a way it hadn't since the Civil War.
The bombing of the ship, docked in Havana, killed 260 crew members, and led to a declaration of war against Spain.
Lasting only a year, the war saw 385 U.S. combat fatalities and resulted in new acquisitions for the United States – “a splendid little war,” Ambassador John Hay called it in a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt.
After the war, 150 bodies were exhumed from a Cuban cemetery and reinterred at Arlington in a public ceremony. During salvage efforts, 66 more bodies were recovered, 65 of which were buried at Arlington. In 1915, the mast of the Maine was installed at Arlington as a memorial.
The wars that followed were neither splendid nor little. After World War I, a stream of bodies – most originally buried in France – poured into Arlington, and before the onset of World War II, Arlington's interred population stood at about 50,000.
World War II sent interment levels to new highs, and the cemetery, in response, cut the size of grave plots from 6-feet-6 by 12 feet to 5 by 10. It began burying people closer to the roadways, and tree plantings were curtailed.
In 1951, during the Korean War, John “Jack” Metzler became superintendent of Arlington, ushering Arlington into the modern era.
In 1955, he automated the grave-digging process, and what used to take an employee an entire day became a 12-minute job.
“It costs around $29 to have a complete grave done by hand,” Metzler noted in an interview with the Washington Daily News. “With the Trenchmaster, we've now got the cost down to $9 plus change.”
The senior Metzler, known for making two-hour inspections of the grounds, saw interments pass the 100,000 mark in 1959. He initiated the tiered burial system in 1961 (later adopted by all national cemeteries). In 1966, he procured 190 more acres for Arlington, from Fort Myer, ensuring enough space for burials into the 21st century.
His most challenging days, though, would come after the death of President Kennedy, whose nationally televised funeral brought more prestige to Arlington – and more tourists, too. In the year after his death, up to 50,000 a day visited his gravesite and the eternal flame that burns there, on the hill in front of Arlington House.
At Kennedy's funeral, when television news crews hoping to film the casket going into the ground declined to disperse, Metzler ordered all electricity shut down, making operation of their cameras impossible.
In the late 1960s, war once again upped the pace of burials at Arlington. With 500 fatalities a week in Vietnam, Arlington's interment jumped to 37 services a day, some reflecting the war's divisiveness.
In a few cases, families asked that the military's participation in services be limited; in others, families refused to accept the ceremonial flags.
A bright sun glistened off the rows of white marble headstones on April 24 – a day that would see three Iraqi Freedom casualties buried, two of whom had been killed by friendly fire.
Army Captain Edward J. Korn, 31, of Georgia, died April 3, shot by U.S. troops who mistook him for an Iraqi soldier. Navy Lieutenant Nathan D. White, 30, of Arizona, a father of three, was piloting a fighter jet shot down April 2 by a Patriot missile.
Also buried that Thursday was Army Captain James F. Adamouski, 29, killed in a helicopter crash in central Iraq on April 2. A West Point graduate, Adamouski had been a star soccer player in Springfield, Virginia, at Robert E. Lee High School.
When John Metzler returned to his office from a budget meeting in Washington on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he noticed the staff was gathered around a television set.
Horribly riveting as the scenes from New York were, Arlington's superintendent walked away from the TV and into his office. “We had work to do.”
He was on the telephone when he heard a roar that got louder and louder, and the floor-to-ceiling windows in his office began to vibrate.
Fighter jets commonly soar low over the cemetery for funeral services. But this was different. “This was a sound I never heard before,” he says. “And as soon as you walked outside you could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon.”
Three or four funerals were going on when the passenger jet struck the Pentagon. All of them continued, as did the rest of the funerals scheduled that morning. “We had to continue to bury the dead,” he says.
It's hard to picture Metzler frolicking, but growing up in a house on cemetery grounds, from age 4 to 19, he did just that. He remembers snowball fights with his brothers in Section 1, where the headstones were bigger and better for hiding behind; gathering shell casings left on the ground after funeral salutes; sledding down the hill that is now the Kennedy family gravesite.
“It seemed normal to me. It was all I knew.” After high school, Metzler joined the Army, spent a year in Vietnam and later became a civilian employee, joining the national cemetery system in 1973.
In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War (17 casualties of which would be buried at Arlington), he was named superintendent of Arlington.
Just as when he was in school, Metzler found himself having to explain his address. On his checks, it just says Arlington National Cemetery. His polling place, he says, asked him to make up an address, not wanting to list a voter's address as a cemetery.
Metzler hopes to buried in the cemetery, as his father was.
Sixty-two of the Pentagon casualties were buried at Arlington – 50 of them within sight of the Pentagon, less than 300 yards from the point of impact, side by side in three rows of graves; 12 of them, including those whose families “didn't want to be that close,” Metzler says, were buried in other parts of the cemetery.
A five-sided Pentagon Memorial bears the names of all 184 victims, and sits atop the commingled and cremated remains that could not be positively linked to specific victims.
DNA tests were conducted first to make sure the remains did not include those of any of the five terrorists on the plane.
Norman David Mayer looked more like a joke than a terrorist.
Wearing a blue snowsuit, his face covered by a black motorcycle helmet, he took the Washington Monument hostage for 10 hours one day in 1982.
Claiming to have 1,000 pounds of explosives parked in his van at the foot of the monument, Mayer – who frequently stood in front of the White House to protest nuclear weapons – seized the monument in hopes of getting his message across.
After releasing nine hostages, Mayer, 66, got into his van. While pulling away, he was shot four times by police.
As it turned out, he had no explosives; and he was a veteran, honorably discharged after two years in the Navy.
That qualified him, not for burial, but for inurnment at Arlington's columbarium, where cremated remains are kept.
A cemetery official tried to talk Mayer's brother into using another cemetery, without success, and on Dec. 7, 1982, Mayer, over the objections of secretary of the Army, was inurned at Arlington, without honors.
It wasn't the first time Arlington had buried a veteran some viewed as undeserving.
In 1966, the Department of Defense denied an Arlington burial to Robert Thompson who, though otherwise qualified, had served as New York State chairman of the Communist Party and had been convicted for advocating the overthrow of the government. His family filed suit and, after a three-year legal fight, Thompson, who had won the Distinguished Service Cross in the South Pacific in World War II, received an Arlington burial.
In 1997, Arlington faced a prospect the Army found even more revolting: Timothy McVeigh, awaiting execution for bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City, an attack that took 168 lives, was eligible for burial at Arlington.
McVeigh, a decorated Gulf War veteran, had not requested an Arlington burial, but to preclude any possibility, a bill was quickly passed and signed into law by President Clinton. Known as the McVeigh Act, it allows national cemeteries to refuse burials to veterans convicted of capital offenses.
Three more Iraqi freedom burials were held at Arlington the last week in April.
A-10 attack jets flew over the April 25 funeral for Air Force Staff Sergeant Scott D. Sather, 29, of Michigan, shot to death in southern Baghdad on April 8.
Buddhist monks in flowing orange robes stood among Marines in form-fitting blue uniforms at the April 28 service for Marine Corporal Kemaphoom A. Chanawongse. The 22-year-old, who moved to the United States from Bangkok as a child, was killed March 23 in an ambush outside Nasiriyah.
And on April 29, Marine Chief Warrant Officer Andrew T. Arnold, 30, of Spring, Texas, was buried. Arnold and two other marines were killed when a weapon seized from the enemy – a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – misfired.
In the mountains of Colorado, near a ghost town called Marble, Rex Loesby and his crew are looking for a slab of flawless white rock. When they find it, it will be sent to Arlington to replace the existing 50-ton slab at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
What many consider the most sacred of Arlington's memorials – the only one guarded around the clock – is cracked.
First noticed in the 1940s, the crack has grown about an inch a year, circling the sarcophagus one and a half times. Attempts to patch it have failed, and in 2001, cemetery officials approved replacing the tomb.
The original stone – the largest single block of marble produced in the U.S. – came from the same quarry in 1931.
It was shipped to Vermont for finishing and then sculpted at Arlington as a memorial that now honors unidentified servicemen and women killed in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
The unknown World War I soldier was buried there in 1921. The marble slab – inscribed with the words “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God” – was positioned on top of the original structure in 1931. In 1958, unknown soldiers from World War II and Korea were buried there.
In 1981, an unknown soldier from Vietnam was buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns, but five years ago he was exhumed and identified, through DNA testing, as Air Force first lieutenant Michael J. Blassie. The family had the body moved closer to their home in Missouri.
Just as technology has led to weapons that leave the dead more difficult to identify, it has also made it possible to identify the slightest remains, and most consider it unlikely that there will be more unknown soldiers.
Loesby, president of Sierra Minerals Corp., has found two slabs, but because they contained streaks or specks of gray, neither were acceptable to him. He told Arlington's superintendent that finding the perfect stone could take another year.
“His response,” Loesby says, “was that Arlington could wait for the best.”
On May 1 – the day President Bush, speaking aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, declared that major combat in Iraq had ended – the ashes of Marine Lance Corporal Alan Dinh Lam, 19, killed in the same weapons accident as Andrew Arnold, were to be buried in Arlington.
During the service, though, officials learned that his family did not intend to make Arlington his final resting place – but thought there was only to be a memorial service. The ceremony, originally open to the press, was closed. The representatives of the news media were ushered away and Lam's ashes, after the service, were taken home to Snow Camp, North Carolina, by his family.
Three more casualties would be buried in May.
On May 12, Army Chief Warrant Officer Eric A. Smith, 41, of California, killed in an April 2 helicopter crash, was buried.
On May 14, services were held for Air Force Airman Raymond Losano, 24, of Texas, killed in an April 25 firefight in Afghanistan. Next to his widow sat his 2-year-old daughter, holding a red, white and blue lollipop. His wife is expecting a second child this month.
On May 15, Sergeant First Class John W. Marshall, 50, of Georgia, who recovered from cancer in the 1980s, was buried. He was killed April 8 by a rocket-propelled grenade. Both of his parents were veterans.
Four to five hours a night, Mike Patterson sits at a computer in his Long Island home, cutting and pasting, harvesting information for his Internet homage to Arlington.
“Whether you're a PFC killed in Iraq, or a four-star general, you deserve to be remembered,” he says.
Patterson, the son of a career Army officer, started his Web site (www.arlingtoncemetery.net) in 1996. He is 56, and works for a transportation company. He visits Arlington regularly.
“It's a magical place. It honest to God is. Just look around at the names. If you know anything about military history at all, it's just mind-blowing. … You get a sense of duty and country there you just don't get anywhere else.”
When funerals cease, he says, something will be lost – Arlington would reflect a chunk of America's history, rather than the entire, continuing history it represents now.
“It's the train of America, still running down the track.”
On his site, Patterson keeps a running list of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been buried at Arlington, documenting their lives and deaths with information gleaned from news accounts and sent in by family members.
“I figured, if they gave their lives, the least I could do is hold on to their stories. There are so many people there who have done so much for their country, and they're being lost – lost to history,” he says.
Only so many words can fit on a tombstone, but the Internet is limitless, and Patterson, who makes no money from his Web site, sees it as a way to keep their memories alive.
Four more Iraqi Freedom casualties were buried at Arlington in June.
They may both be Army veterans, but when it comes to Arlington, John Metzler and Sherman Pratt are clearly on opposite sides.
Metzler, as superintendent, wants Arlington National Cemetery to remain an active cemetery as long as possible.
Pratt, former director of the Arlington Historical Society, thinks the cemetery needs to stop expanding, especially when it comes at the expense of other historical sites.
For years now, they've worked their strategies, while keeping a wary eye on each other.
Metzler, for example, might, with his political contacts, try to quietly get some land transferred from the National Park Service, which operates Arlington House, to the Army, which operates the cemetery, in the guise of, say, a defense authorization bill.
Pratt, aware of Metzler's proclivity for seeking out new turf, might read through reams of government paperwork to try and catch him.
“Two years in a row I caught him doing that. It was in a big 15-pound package with billions of dollars for all sorts of projects around the country – transferring the land, with no environmental impact studies. I got it pulled out of the bill two years in a row, but this last year, he did it again, very surreptitiously, and it sailed through the House and Senate. He's a very sly fella. Very effective.”
Pratt and other objectors managed to stop the planned transfer of 24 acres from Arlington House to Arlington National Cemetery, and hammer out a compromise that results in the cemetery getting 12 acres.
“Arlington House is a historical jewel that should be kept intact, and that includes preserving the woodlands next to it,” says Pratt, who served in World War II and retired from a military career in the 1960s.
As Pratt sees it, Metzler will do everything in his power to ensure that Arlington remains an active cemetery.
“He's obsessed with the idea of putting that day off as long as possible,” Pratt says. “He feels very justified in doing this. He thinks he's serving the public, and to some extent he is.”
But land around the cemetery is running out. Hemmed in by the Potomac, the Pentagon, Fort Myer and a small residential community, called Foxcroft Heights, there is not much space left for Arlington to grow.
“I keep teasing him about it,” Pratt says. “I say, ‘Jack, now that you've got this land, where are you going to go next – National Airport, the Pentagon parking lot?' He smiles and says, ‘If I can get it.' ”
Pratt qualifies for an Arlington burial, but “I'm not losing any sleep over it,” he says. “If there's a spot, my wife will bury me there, but … I'm not that keen about where I'm buried. … When I'm gone, I'm gone.”
It was raining August 1, when Army Sergeant Chad L. Keith, 21, of Indiana was buried in Arlington, three weeks after he was killed when a bomb exploded near his Humvee while he was on night patrol in Baghdad.
It was raining again August 7, when services were held for Army Sergeant Brett T. Christian, 27, of Ohio, killed July 23 when his convoy was attacked in Mosul.
On Aug. 22, though, it was swelteringly hot as services began for Army Private First Class Tim R. Brown Jr., 21, killed August 12 in an explosion while traveling with a convoy in Al Taji.
As a handful of news media representatives watched from behind a theater rope set up in the grass 150 feet away, his flag-draped casket – after a 270-mile trip from his hometown of Conway, Pennsylvania – was carried to the gravesite for what would be the 22nd of 27 funerals at Arlington that day.
The chaplain called Brown “a soldier, very young in life. … It is because of his sacrifice and the sacrifice of so many like him that we are free.”
Afterward, three shots rang out, and a bugler standing under an oak tree in the distance played taps.
Brown's parents, divorced, were given flags and presented with his honors, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart.
As the family filed out, Brown's mother, Cindy Miles, dropped to her knees, crying on his casket. She held a flag, and a note passed on during the service by a woman in civilian dress.
It doesn't happen often, but when it does, Paula McKinley says, there's nothing sadder: The flag is folded for presentation to the family, but there is no one to hand it to – no family in attendance, sometimes no civilians at all.
It was such a sight that Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenburg spotted on his way home from the Pentagon one night in 1948 and relayed to his wife, Gladys. She volunteered to attend the next civilian-less funeral, started getting her friends to do the same, and another Arlington tradition was born, later to be picked up by the Army and Navy.
The Arlington Ladies now attend every funeral for active duty or retired members of the armed service, offering assistance, condolences, a hand-written note and, when needed, a shoulder to cry on.
“We're not there to say, ‘I know exactly what you're going through,' because none of us knows,” says McKinley, chairperson of the Navy Arlington Ladies. “We're just there to say, ‘I'm here if you need me.' ”
There are about 75 Arlington Ladies, another 50 each for the Navy and Air Force – all volunteers who are married or otherwise related to service members, or are in the service themselves. One Arlington Lady is a man, but, tradition being what it is, there is no talk of changing the organization's name.
McKinley, 58, is married to a retired Navy captain and has served as an Arlington Lady since 1991, sometimes handling as many as six funerals a day.
Their contact with the family often continues long after the funeral. About a month afterward, Arlington Ladies send a card or letter to the family.
“Some families contact us,” she says. “One contacts us every year on her husband's birthday and on their wedding anniversary. She sends us $10 and asks us to go put a couple of roses on his grave.” Others – since the headstones rarely arrive in time for funerals – ask them to send pictures, and the Arlington Ladies oblige.
“We are their Arlington Lady forever,” she says.
Section 60 was set up for two funerals on August 29 – a dual ceremony for two Air Force officers in the morning, a private ceremony in the afternoon for a Navy Seal killed in Afghanistan.
Navy Petty Officer First Class David M. Tapper, 32, of Atco, New Jersey, had spent two months in Iraq before being sent to Afghanistan. Few details about his death were released by the Navy, but family members said Tapper – who had been involved in the rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq – was shot while on a mission in eastern Afghanistan.
Watkins and Das were killed when their F-15E fighter jet went down during a combat mission near Tikrit on April 7.
The remains of Das, the pilot, a 30-year-old Air Force Academy graduate from Amarillo, were found and identified April 18. The remains of his weapons system officer, Watkins, 37, a Naval Academy graduate who later switched to the Air Force, were identified the following week.
Both were married to Air Force officers; Watkins had one child, with another on the way.
Both were returned home and buried May 3 – Das at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and Watkins at Oak Ridge Cemetery in South Boston, Virginia, near his hometown of Danville.
Later, though, their families were notified that more remains had been found, and they opted to have another service, at Arlington, to bury those.
The commingled remains arrived on a caisson pulled by six gray horses. After the chaplain spoke, the bugler played taps. The three-round salute was fired. And three jets flew over, in missing-man formation.
When the crowd left, Arlington workers returned, and by the next day, the grave of Das and Watkins was covered, awaiting the seed that will grow the grass that will spread over the bare earth in Section 60, as if to weave them into history.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard