Must-win war enters year three

WASHINGTON – Another 9/11, with the same translucent sky. I switched off the e-mail and the cable news channels, left the office and rode the train to Arlington.

The national cemetery is a stirring place. The long white lines of graves trace the rise and fall of grassy hillsides. A few hundred feet away, visible through a line of oaks, is the southwest side of the Pentagon, a place of flame and horror two years ago.

On one green slope is a freshly turned patch of red Virginia clay, with temporary markers that denote new graves. A little farther along, but in the same row, the dirt gives way to proper sod, and newly etched tombstones that gleam in the sun.

The older stones say “World War II” or “Vietnam.” The name of a new war is carved upon the fresh ones: “Iraq.”

As in our other wars, the names on the headstones speak of America's varied faiths and heritage. Kemaphoom Ahn Chanawongse, CPL, USMC, Iraq. Andrew AvilesDominic BaragonaDavid TapperTimmy Brown. Brett Christian. Chad Keith. Raymond LosanoBrett PetrikenJames AdamouskiNino Livaudais.

The freshest of these graves is Spec. Darryl Dent's. He was 21 on Aug. 26, when, the Army says, a remotely triggered explosion took his life as he rode in a truck, delivering mail, just north of Baghdad. He is one of the two dozen members of the National Guard to die thus far in Iraq. His unit, the district's National Guard 547th Transportation Co., was mobilized last winter.

He spent his childhood in North Carolina, then left his mother's home to join his dad, who worked as a doorman here in Washington. He graduated from Roosevelt High School, where he was a standout in the Junior ROTC program. He enrolled in a mentoring program, following physicians in their daily work, at the Washington Medical Center.

“He wanted to be a doctor; that was his aspiration,” Johnette Wilson, who runs the program, said when I called her. “He was kind of shy when he came; very serious-minded. He was gentle, and kind-spirited.

“He went into the ROTC. He said to me that he needed to raise the funds to give him an opportunity to pay for college,” said Wilson. “When he talked about going into the military, at that time it wasn't a war. Young men don't think that it will come to that, and to be honest with you, neither did I.”

Two members of Colorado's Army National Guard have offered their lives to this war on terror: Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Romero in Afghanistan, and Staff Sgt. Barry Sanford in Iraq. There will be additional deaths, for the Guard is being asked to serve more often, and for longer stretches of time. Last week the Army ordered thousands of Guard and reserve personnel to extend their tour of duty in Iraq. The Guard's promotional ads say it proudly: “Front door to combat in hours.”

Two years. And the war that began on 9/11 has now lasted longer than the Spanish-American War, or our part in World War I, or more than half the time it took us to win World War II.

We have conquered, and now bear the hopes and burdens of, two fabled lands upon whose unforgiving deserts and fanged peaks the dreams of previous empires crumbled.

In Vietnam, we could quit, pack up, and go home: Ho Chi Minh had no pirated Russian nukes, or vials of smallpox germs. This will be tougher; defeat is not an option.

We must stay and win a peace, cure ills and curb old hatreds. And if you wonder how long and hard it may be, then take a look at the Palestinians.

The day's last sunshine fell upon the lawns and magnolia trees, raced across the muddy Potomac and lit the monuments of the federal city with a golden-red glow, the color of the sands of Normandy.

I mumbled a prayer, and I'm not a praying man.

Lord, let us get this right. The graves of Darryl Dent and these other young soldiers cry out for meaning, demand no less.

The third year began.

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