Victims of Pentagon attack laid to rest with distinction

One by one, they are being laid to rest in the shadow of the building where they perished.

The charred Pentagon looms in the background. A Navy Ceremonial Honor Guard stands over caskets. A
bugler plays taps with an aching slowness.

Thousands of white grave-markers stretch in every direction as three quick rifle volleys break the silence.
Wives and children and mothers and fathers receive flags and hugs from officers in spotless dress uniforms.

At Arlington National Cemetery, it’s time to bury the dead of yet another war — an almost unimaginable
conflict fought with box cutters and commercial airliners. On U.S. soil.

At Arlington, there are 25 funerals scheduled already, and there will be more. Of the 189 people buried inside
the Pentagon when a hijacked Boeing 757 airliner hit the building’s southwest side on September 11, 50 were
soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines.

So they are brought here — to a patch of open space that will forever tie them to the building where they
worked and died.

‘This life is temporary’

On Thursday, it was Navy Commander Patrick Dunn’s turn. The early-afternoon sun was warm and bright when the pallbearers took the flag-draped casket into the Old Post Chapel for the Roman Catholic service.

The Rev. Bob Keane, himself a Navy lieutenant commander, offered words of hope in the packed chapel, encouraging mourners not to despair in the face of a senseless death — the loss of a 39-year-old military strategist, a man who will never see the child his wife is carrying. Their first child.

“This is not something sorrowful,” Keane said. “We know this life is temporary. It’s how we live it — and how
we die — that’s important.”

By the time the gunmetal-colored coffin emerged, a ceiling of slate-gray clouds crept over the chapel, ushered in by a breeze carrying the first hints of a new autumn in Washington.

With the casket atop a horse-drawn caisson, the procession moved slowly down the meandering cemetery roads to the gravesite, an oasis of unbroken grass amid wave after wave of small, rectangular white
headstones. The Navy Band walked behind, playing military hymns punctuated by haunting drumrolls.

Dunn’s wife, Stephanie,led the mourners, clinging to the arm of the officer escorting her across the lawn.

Eulogized as a hero

Less than two hours later, Shari Tolbert walked across the same stretch of grass near the corner of Patton and Marshall drives, a knot of family members and a  busload of naval officers on her heels.

A few feet from where Dunn’s body had just been lowered into the ground, the new widow sat in front of
the casket of her husband, Lieutenant Commander Otis Vincent Tolbert. Their two daughters sat on either side, their 18-month-old brother nestled in the arms of a relative.

A colleague of Vincent Tolbert’s in the naval intelligence office praised a conscientious, kind man who took his duties as an officer, a husband and a friend equally seriously.

“I will remember Vince as a hero,” Commander Todd Ross said in his eulogy. “Not because of the way he died, but because of the way he lived. All day, every day,  24/7.”

In front of the grave, Shari Tolbert accepted the flag that had covered her husband’s casket, her body shaking with soft sobs. She shared long embraces with her husband’s brothers and commanding officers.

Above everyone’s heads, four football fields away, a handful of workers stood on the Pentagon’s roof, continuing the effort to make the building whole again as a crane towered over the whole scene — slowly, methodically removing the rubble.

It is not yet clear whether the headstones of those who died inside the Pentagon will bear a special insignia, like the graves of those killed in the bombing of the USS Cole last year. But even without it, it will be easy to distinguish the victims of September 11 from the rest of those buried under the same white marble markers.

They’ll all have the same date of death.

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