New Graves, Fresh Grief

Perennially Sedate Arlington Cemetery Adjusts to the Needs of Mourners of This War
By Darragh Johnson
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Sunday, May 20, 2007

In Section 60, death remains too fresh to be separated from life.

You see it in the 17 cigars pushed into the grass near one headstone, signs that a combat unit stopped by.

And in the mother who spent winter afternoons wrapped in a sleeping bag, stretched across her son’s grave.

And in the older man who reads Robert Frost to the dead, knowing that their families live thousands of miles away.

Here in Section 60 are the graves of 336 men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan — almost one in 10 of the dead. Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have produced the highest percentage of burials at Arlington National Cemetery from any war. For the duration of this war, there have been few photographs of coffins returning home. Section 60 is the one place to get a sense of the immensity of the nation’s loss.

The great expanse of the cemetery is known for its orderliness, its precision. Each Memorial Day, the government places an American flag exactly one foot in front of every headstone. Only flowers are allowed on graves.

But in “60,” the messiness of life disrupts the order. Picnics are laid and incense burned. Red glass hearts are left atop the headstones. Origami-style sheets of notebook paper are tucked away, safe from lawn mower blades.

Mothers and widows, friends and regretful exes write intimate notes, some as casual as a message stuck on a refrigerator door.

“I called your old cellphone the other day. Someone named Brian has it now, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he knew anything about you.”

“It was so wonderful having lunch with you. Now that I know how easy it is to get here by Metro, I’ll come by way more often.”

Here, the deaths haven’t been fully absorbed. People talk to their dead. They still see their dead. “Somebody drives by,” says Linda Bishop, a few feet from the grave site of her son Jeff, “and you think it’s him. You see him.” The phone rings, says Xiomara Mena Anderson, standing over the grave of her son Andy, and “I always think it’s him.”

Other parts of Arlington wear the dignified repose of old age and bygone eras. Section 60 reverberates with youth and immediacy. Visitors wear long sideburns and spiky hair, flip flops and eyelet skirts.

Even the names on the headstones sound youthful and vibrant: Megan, Jesse, Heath, Blake. They are names that seem better suited to text messaging — LOL, BFF — than to the abbreviated code of the graveyard — CPL, BSM.

“I find a need to be there,” says Teresa Arciola, who drives from New York’s Westchester County every other month to place iPod earbuds on her son’s (Michael Anthony Arciola) grave and play for him the Temptations and Eminem. She brings him Black Forest gummy bears and, on his birthday, beer that she pours into the ground. At every visit, she sits on his grave and reads aloud from his favorite baby book, “Corduroy.” He had just turned 20.

“I feel good while I’m there,” Arciola says. “But I don’t think there’s comfort.”

 The graves come quickly.

One mother visits the grave of her casualty officer, the man who was there for her when she first learned that her son had died in 2005.

The funerals require an extra level of choreography.

Two were held Wednesday, back to back. Overhead, thunderstorms threatened, the sky was the color of dark cement and the wind blew flower arrangements to the ground.

By the time the first man was buried — Major Douglas A. Zembiec, a 34-year-old Marine known as the Lion of Fallujah — the backhoe beside his grave had begun to dig for the next funeral. More than 50 mourners remained near Zembiec’s grave site.

Some wandered, visiting other graves. A man in a dark suit sought out two other headstones. A Marine officer spent 20 minutes crisscrossing the section, stopping regularly.

And the backhoe continued to dig. Every mound of dirt scooped from the newest grave was used to finish burying the officer whose funeral had just ended. Rites for Army Specialist Matthew T. Bolar were to begin in an hour.

To stand at the edge of where the graves begin is to see exactly what the war has meant — what has been lost, what has been sacrificed. The headstones’ dark, black lettering seems to endlessly repeat the vague circumstances of each death: Operation Iraqi Freedom . . . Operation Iraqi Freedom . . . Operation Enduring Freedom . . . Iraqi Freedom . . . Iraqi . . . Iraqi . . . Iraqi . . . Enduring . . . Iraqi . . . Iraqi . . . Iraqi . . . Iraqi . . . Iraqi . . . Iraqi . . . Enduring . . .

“Freedom is not free,” say the hats and bracelets worn by some visitors to Section 60. And the rows of headstones — from the just-dug graves back to the those of World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans who died of old age — are stark, white reminders of how much that freedom has cost.

The graves spread in every direction, as orderly as crops in early June, lines and diagonals as reassuring as they are mesmerizing.

Although more than 300,000 veterans from every American war since the Revolution are buried at Arlington, the cemetery gained worldwide prominence after President John F. Kennedy was laid to rest there in 1963. It is celebrated as sacred ground for military heroes.

Arciola remembers first going to visit her son Michael after he died in Iraq in 2005. Seeing another mother in a chair nearby, Arciola approached and asked, “Does it get any better?”

Answered the woman, whose son had died about two years earlier, “No.”

This is the place where all of the grief, anger and pride at what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan come together. Children chase each other through the headstones and try to pry rocks from the dirt of freshly dug graves. Their parents stand nearby, introducing themselves and exchanging e-mails and phone numbers.

“They tell me they don’t want to go to any more grief counselors or priests. They want to be with people who are going through hell themselves,” says Carol Thomas, who stops by regularly and has befriended many of the regulars. Her husband is buried elsewhere in Arlington, and she sees the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead as “all my boys.” She sees their mothers and fathers, widows, uncles, best friends and others as “my great friends.”

In this place bordered by a canopy of trees, with distant church bells ringing like deep amens to a prayer and a pair of wind chimes sounding like a summertime back porch, mothers call to each other from afar: “How have you been?” “It’s good to see you!” They hug and squeeze hands, holding tight and saying silently what no one has to articulate.

“Has the Muslim family come today?” asks regular visitor Joyce Ward on the afternoon of Mother’s Day.

“No. I haven’t seen them,” answers Anderson, whose eldest son died in Iraq a year ago in June. She misses him so completely that the words of his tombstone are repeated across the back left window of her sport-utility vehicle and on a bracelet she wears daily: “In loving memory of My Beloved Son Corporal Andy D. Anderson.” She has spent all day here, filling vases by his gravestone with mums and daisies.

“But I see flowers,” Anderson adds, thinking this is a good sign.

“No,” Ward tells her, worriedly. “I brought those.”

They go quiet for a moment, knowing what the other family is going through, wishing they could help. Another woman nearby says, “The parents are having a tough time, aren’t they?”

In May 2005, Beth Belle’s son, Nicholas Kirven, was the first to be buried in a brand-new row of graves. Two years later, five rows extend from his headstone. She is talking about the young man who stopped by earlier in the day, the one who still walked haltingly on his prosthesis and had a scar winding around his skull, the one who leaned over to see names on the newest graves, his arms hugging his chest.

“They come, and they cry,” Belle says, describing the veterans she has watched and spoken with in the past two years. Only a week ago, while she and her husband and others from their family were fussing over flowers at her son’s grave, she noticed a Marine hanging out at the grave of a young man buried two rows up from her son.

“He kept looking over at us,” Belle says, until her sister finally told her, “I think he wants to talk to you. You should go over there.” He had been back only two days, Belle remembers, and he said, “This is the hardest thing for us to see — the families.”

As she talks, another young man comes and kneels by Larry Philippon‘s grave, right next to her son’s. He starts to cry, and his sniffles seem so loud they almost echo. When he stands, Belle’s husband says something to him, and he answers quickly, as though it’s all he trusts himself to say: “I played lacrosse with Larry.”

When she was talking with the Marine, Belle continues, he became as emotional as the lacrosse player. He told her words she’d heard before from others returning from battle, sentiments she doesn’t share. “I let you down,” he said. “We didn’t bring your son back. I didn’t do my job.”

A man with thick, gray hair is reading to the fallen. Midafternoon, Tom Gugliuzza-Smith takes a break, picks up a large, brown watering can and small brush and visits every gravestone on the section’s northern end, scrubbing bird droppings. He has been visiting Section 60 since late 2004, when he stopped by a funeral and watched a gangly adolescent collapse over his father’s casket. He has since become, in effect, a stand-in for those who can’t be there. He reads books such as “The Da Vinci Code” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” sent by far-away families for their sons.

And now, down York Drive, the shady road that leads straight to Section 60, a tall, slender guy is walking fast. He has shaggy blond hair and Euro-fashionable clothes: dark shirt, skinny jeans, backpack. His stride is long, almost buoyant.

He turns right and threads his way through the gravestones, slowing, then stopping at one that, two-and-a-half weeks ago, lay in the final row. That distinction has since disappeared. A new row of freshly dug graves holds seven headstones.

Sinking to his heels, this young man who, only moments before, looked purposeful and almost brisk seems to crumble. He reaches toward the name etched into the gravestone. He is sobbing.

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