At Arlington, Helping Out Faraway Families

By Bob Levey
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Friday, November 14, 2003

Despite jet screech overhead and encroaching suburbs all around it, Arlington National Cemetery remains a quiet, dignified treasure.

To stroll through it is to feel the commitment of the 10-plus generations that are buried there. To read the headstones is to realize that we are truly one people — whether we are from Arizona, Maine, American Samoa or right down the road.

But geographic diversity can be one of Arlington's hidden problems. If a soldier is buried there, and his family doesn't live anywhere near Washington, who will care enough to visit his grave and leave flowers beside it?

Tricia Stephens has a great answer.

She will.

And other Washingtonians should.

Tricia happened upon this excellent idea August 1, 2003. She and her husband, retired ColonelC. David Stephens, were visiting the grave of David's late wife, Judy.

“Soon after our arrival, a funeral procession for Sergeant Chad Keith arrived nearby,” Tricia writes. “We stood to one side for the funeral service, our hearts going out to the family.”

Chad L. Keith, 21, was an Army specialist from Batesville, Indiana. He served in the famed 82nd Airborne. He was killed in an explosion in Baghdad on July 7, 2003. When he was laid to rest in August, he was the 24th U.S. serviceman to have been killed in Iraq and to have been buried at Arlington.

Tricia Stephens read about him in the next day's Washington Post. She wrote a condolence letter to his family. She said that “each time we visit Arlington, we will visit Chad.”

Tricia told the family that it did not have to respond to her note. However, Chad's mother and stepfather soon did — with thanks. “It was then I realized how much our offer meant to all of us,” Tricia says.

“Nothing really beats one person caring directly for another,” Tricia writes. “So I'd like to suggest that those of us who live in the Washington- Virginia-Maryland area, and who visit Arlington, adopt a soldier.”

Man, oh, man, do I love this idea. Just think for a second what it would mean to a family like Chad Keith's, both in spiritual and in practical terms.

Batesville, Indiana, is about 600 miles from Washington. That's just far enough to be a pain in the neck.

The family will never have to worry about whether Chad Keith's grave will be well tended. The staff at Arlington is unsurpassed in keeping lawns mowed and trash picked up.

But to drive 600 miles each way, several times a year, to place flowers beside a grave? And then drive 600 miles back home? And pay for meals, hotels, wear and tear on a car? That's a burden, any way you slice it.

Tricia Stephens has just lightened it.

Kerry Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Arlington, said that “the superintendent applauds those that run programs like that.” However, Arlington doesn't sponsor any such program itself, and Kerry said cemetery management is unaware of any other Tricias who visit graves on a regular basis on behalf of distant families.

Casualties in Iraq continue to mount. Funerals at Arlington will soon follow. How hard would it be for those of us who live here to visit a grave and leave a bouquet a few times a year? How hard would it be for children to be part of that process?

It'll be their world, very soon. What better reason to build a bridge — and keep it built — between a soldier who won't see the future and a child who will?

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