Why don’t more Americans pay respects to fallen troops?


By Bill Shore
Wednesday, February 14, 2006

I fly by Arlington National Cemetery and pass its gates several times a week as so many of us in Washington do every time we travel between office and airport. Lately I’ve felt its pull, and last month I arrived shortly before it opened at 8 a.m.

A guard asked me to wait behind a group of cars that had arrived for the first of the day’s 14 funerals. On most days, Arlington averages more than 20 burials, although not all of them are related to the war in Iraq.

It suddenly occurred to me that I ought to visit the grave of Geoffrey Cayer, a fallen Marine whose remains had been escorted to D.C. on a commercial flight I had boarded last July. I didn’t know him, but the flight, met by a military honor guard, was a sobering experience. I later read what I could find about him and even corresponded with friends of his family.

I went to the information counter and asked how to find Lance Corporal Cayer’s grave. An employee walked me over to a computer kiosk, searched “Cayer” and printed out a map of the cemetery with “Cayer, Geoffrey Robert, Section 60, site 8411” printed at the bottom.

If John Kennedy’s grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier can be considered tourist attractions, then Section 60 is the part of the cemetery where the real work goes on. I had the 600 acres of gently rolling hills nearly to myself. The silence felt eerie. I walked softly, as if a trespasser. I looked in all directions but saw no one.

Map in hand, it took about 15 minutes to get to Section 60, the quiet disturbed only by the rumble of bulldozers and backhoes shuttling back and forth to keep up with the work. In several areas along the way, workers were setting up mobile canopies and green felt-covered chairs for funerals later in the morning. The same military system that fashioned our forces into a fighting machine has also created a machine to process grief efficiently and effectively.

I found Cayer’s grave on the outskirts of Section 60. He lay between two comrades, Matthew Phillip Wallace and Tulsa Tulaga Tuliau, both of whom had been awarded Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts. Tuliau was a Master Sergeant from American Samoa killed by an improvised explosive device. He left a wife and two very young daughters. Wallace died from burns, also caused by an improvised explosive device. The fresh black lettering stood out sharply on their white tombstones, in contrast with the names on the stones fanned out behind them, faded, perhaps like the lessons of history.

Cayer’s grave was in what, until a few weeks ago, had been the last row. Now, new berms of disturbed earth rose up behind it. From an airplane, the lines of white stones seem to stretch to the landscape’s limit and give the sense that perhaps the cemetery will soon be full. But on the ground, it’s clear there remain vast fields to fill, like a crossword puzzle not finished until every blank space is occupied. Grass had not yet grown over Cayer’s resting place. The new grave in front of his had only a tiny, temporary plastic marker. Ten yards away lay a just-dug hole that gaped 8 feet down into the brown mud.

I wondered why it had taken me so long to drive the short distance across Memorial Bridge to pay my respects. I’m surprised more Americans don’t do so. It’s symptomatic of the distance at which the war has been kept from most of us, and of how content most of us have been to keep it there. We live in a town that generates volumes of opinion about sacrifice and service, but sometimes what is required of us is simply to bear witness.

I stayed at the cemetery for about 90 minutes. Except for the gravediggers, I saw only one other person, a man wearing a suit and a long black coat and also visiting Section 60. This is where the activity is these days, although Section 61 can’t be far behind. We were only a few paces from each other but did not speak. It was just a quiet moment to bear witness, even if there was nothing one could say.

Bill Shore is the founder of Share Our Strength, a non-profit that fights hunger and poverty, and author of The Light of Conscience.


Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment