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Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan

The saddest acre in America:
Hooper mother to share son's story on documentary
about Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60
Monday, October 13, 2008
Courtesy of The Standard-Examiner (Utah)

Just before he shipped out to Iraq, Army Private Michael A. Pursel told his mom that if the worst should happen, he wanted his remains cremated and scattered.

“He didn't want me to be buried somewhere I could go ‘live' by his graveside,” said Air Force Major Terry Dutcher, the mother of Pursel, who died in an explosion in Iraq 17 months ago.

Major Terry Dutcher, of Hooper, mourns in front of her son Michael A. Pursel's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in May 2007.

“Then the military told me that Michael was entitled to be buried at Arlington Cemetery and would be placed at the top of the list. I knew that if Michael and I had discussed Arlington, he would have wanted to be there.

“He always talked about wanting to be a hero.”

Dutcher, 42, has traveled to Arlington, Virginia, three times to visit the grave of her son in the military cemetery that is the final resting place for more than 300,000 men and women.

On one trip, an HBO film crew approached Dutcher. Her interview airs today as part of the documentary, “Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery.”

Section 60, which has been called the saddest acre in America, is the area of the cemetery that holds the remains of troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It's a peaceful place,” Dutcher said of Arlington.

“You can't experience that through the television or books. It's sacred and peaceful. It's absolutely gorgeous.”

“It's impeccable and beautiful. I can't come up with enough wordsto describe it.”

“I'm proud of Michael. I would change what happened to him if there was any way I could, but with the way things happened, I am honored to have Michael in Arlington.”

Dutcher has been mother to eight children, including three she bore, three she adopted after her sister died, and two stepsons. She married Dean Pursel, Michael's father, when both were serving in the Army.

“We knew since (Michael) was 2 that he would join the military,” said Dutcher, now married to Jeffrey Dutcher, a retired military man.

“Michael joined between his 11th- and 12th-grade years. When he picked infantryman (as his preferred assignment), we knew he would be one of the guys in the streets.

“We were concerned about the danger, but his joy at being able to do it overrode our concerns. He was excited about living his dream.”

Dutcher returned from her own assignment in Iraq in January 2007. She and her son, by then a Corporal in the U.S. Army, talked by phone whenever they could.

“He would tell me about how they would walk the streets and go through homes, and how the Iraqis would give them water and invited them to stay the night,” Dutcher said.

“The locals were appreciative. He was even learning to speak Iraqi. He told me he had earned his combat infrantryman's badge, and he told me not to worry.”

Pursel's last phone call came on May 6, 2007, a Saturday. The next day, at 1:10 p.m., Jeffrey Dutcher opened the door to an Army official and a military chaplain.

“They didn't have to say anything,” Terry Dutcher said. “We knew. They had the document in their hands.”

Pursel, six other soldiers and a Russian journalist had been traveling in a Stryker combat vehicle when they were hit by an improvised explosive device. All but the driver had been killed.

Pursel, who had just turned 19, was dead after serving 18 months.

Mourning is an ongoing process.

“Some days are better than others,” Dutcher said. “I still have my days. I don't want to say I have come to accept Michael's death, because I can never accept it. I can accept that it is real now. It didn't used to feel real.”

“I used to count the days. Every Sunday at 1:10 in the afternoon would be horrible. After a year, I stopped counting the days and started counting months.”

“I have more good days now.”

Dutcher said she hopes to visit the grave where her son's ashes are buried twice a year.

“It's not like ‘living' there,” she said, remembering her son's wishes.

“It sounds strange to say, but Arlington's not really a sad place. Sometimes we have picnics there, and tell stories. Sometimes we meet other family members, and find a lot in common.”

“When I was in Iraq, we lost a Major, a man from security forces and another young man in a helicopter accident. I went to their services in Iraq, but I never knew where they went home to.

Major Gilbert is buried, like, 5 feet from Michael, and the other two are in Arlington, as well. It's a place that combat buddies go home to. I like to think they are together, and they are happy now.”

There are restrictions on who can be buried at Arlington.

Among those allowed are troops killed on active duty, or who die after completing 20 years of service, or who die after being awarded certain specific military honors.

“People don't understand what you have to give to get in there,” Dutcher said.

“The requirements are tough. They are heroes. The people buried at Arlington went above and beyond to help someone else. They gave of themselves for the safety of others.”

On one trip to Arlington, Dutcher met a stranger who seemed to understand.

“She was a lady from Germany who spoke very little English, but we managed to communicate. She e-mailed me later, from Germany, and expressed her thankfulness for what Michael had done, and for what all the soldiers had done.”

“I can't say for sure if I were in Germany that I would think to go visit one of their national cemeteries. I'm not sure if most people really understand the profound nature of the sacrifice these men and women have made.”

“I thought it was kind of neat.”

Trapped in Section 60:
An Interview with the Directors of “Section 60: Arlington Nation Cemetery”
By: Katie Halper
13 October 2008

Most Americans have never heard of Section 60, let alone visited it. But tonight, thanks to filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matt O'Neill, you can get a glimpse of the area in Arlington National Cemetery where the men and women who have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried.

Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery is the third of a trilogy of collaborations between the filmmakers and HBO that capture the costs of the current wars. Section 60, in fact, picks up where Baghdad ER left off. The tragic death from shrapnel wounds of 21-year-old Lance Corporal Robert T. Mininger comes at the unforgettable end of Baghdad ER. Their latest documentary opens with a mother visiting the grave of her son “Bobby.” Unlike like the action-packed Baghdad ER or the stylized Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, Section 60 offers an almost unmediated view into the lives of the men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, who, week after week, day after day, find solace, community, and a place to grieve visiting their lost loved ones in Section 60.

The Emmy Award-winning directors are based in New York out of DCTV. Yesterday they were in Washington, D.C., to attend a special TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) screening of their film at the Navy Memorial. I caught up with Alpert and O'Neill over the phone as they got ready for the screening and talked to me about why Section 60 matters now, how making this film affected them in a way no other documentary has, and what it's like feeling “trapped in Section 60.”

Katie Halper: Why should Americans care about Section 60 and your film?

Matt O'Neill: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become the background noise in this presidential election. No one is paying attention right now in the mainstream media to the costs that the military and their families are paying day in and day out, whether it's the 5,000 lives lost or the hundreds of thousands who have spent years away from their friends and families. That's why we're proud to be working with HBO and Sheila Nevins to make this film. They've consistently brought attention to these issues when the rest of the media is ignoring them. And it's an important time right now in the context of the presidential elections. Americans need to be paying attention to the two wars that we're fighting overseas right now and the hundreds of thousands of men women who are serving the county over there. No matter what you think politically, it's essential that when you walk into the voting booth on November 4th, you remember that the person you're voting for, whether it's a congressional or the presidential election, will be deciding whether or not to send men and women to fight wars. We want the film to be watched by tens of millions of people because that's the type of attention we want to bring to Section 60. And we told the families, “Let us into your world because we want people to pay attention to it.” We think Section 60 deserves it.

KH: Your war-related recent films were very different. Baghdad ER was more dynamic and action-packed. And Alive Day Memories was much more stylized. How did this compare to those two experiences?

MO: The reality in Baghdad ER is very different than the reality in Section 60. In Baghdad, we tried to show what it's like being in an emergency room in a war zone, with tons of action. It's terrifying…riveting, it reminds you of the costs of the war in a visceral way. Section 60 had a totally different energy. We're trying to help the rest of the country enter the world that these families live in every day. The greatest praise that we received thus far was at a screening for a number of the families. Paula Zillinger, is one of the mothers in this film, she's in the first real scene in the film and she goes to visit her son's grave. Her son, Bobby, died in the end of Baghdad ER. At the screening she got up and faced the audience and said, “Welcome to our world.” I hope it brings an audience into the reality that these families are living.

KH: Was it eerie? Did you feel like you were intruding?

MO: Approaching these families was one of the most difficult things that I've ever had to do as a filmmaker because their expressions of grief, their visits to the graves of their lost loved ones, are the most intimate moments you could possibly imagine. And we're standing there… waiting… with a camera. So the way that we operated was as human beings first, documentarians second. We spent lots of time in the cemetery not filming, talking about why we were doing what we were doing, how we wanted to capture the cemetery as experienced on a day-to-day basis. We wanted to capture their love. And sometimes the first time we spoke to a family they declined to be filmed. And maybe on the second time we spent a lot of time talking but didn't film anything and then maybe on the third time or the fourth time they said, “You know, we would like to be part of this. We would like to be filmed.” And eventually we became part of the fabric of the cemetery. So many of these families are returning week after week or day after day, so we became part of their community.

KH: What was your schedule like?

Jon Alpert: Basically the schedule was we were in the cemetery from the opening of the gates to the closing of the gates every single day for almost four months.

KH: What kind of toll did that take on you?

JA: Every American should visit Arlington and visit Section 60. I hope it would have the same impact that it had on us…. When you stand there and see the rows and rows of tombstones stretching towards the horizon, you really realize what the price of war can be – not only these wars but what it has been for centuries. That really goes deep into your being. Section 60 is such an open wound in the families of the fallen. People say, “You'll get over it. With time you'll heal.” The loss and the sadness of these families is not healing. That's another thing we hope America will pick up. Because maybe we're paying a price for the war in the way it's affecting our economy but it's not something that has an impact… I mean people could watch a football game on Monday night instead of watching this documentary. But for these families, their lives have been altered and they will never, ever, ever be the same.

MO: I cried a lot in Section 60. I got the sense that a lot of these families were trapped by their loss and trapped by their love that couldn't be requited and I felt trapped to a certain extent. Over the course of four months I became somewhat overwhelmed by the sense of loss and the sense that nobody is paying attention. The loss is so profound in Section 60, so tangible. You understand that each of those numbers discussed in the media, whether they were talking about 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, have left a profound sense of emptiness, and ripped a hole in the fabric of a community and the fabric of a family. And when I wasn't there, I wanted to be there, paying respect and honoring the people who are buried there. Because a large swath of the country isn't and isn't even aware of it. It's your responsibility as a citizen, an American, to know what's happening with our service members overseas. So I became quite depressed at times.

KH: When you were running around doing Baghdad ER you must have had a lot of adrenaline. With this film, the grief is unmitigated with no action or suspense or chaos to distract you. It affected me, a viewer, in a way that Baghdad ER didn't. How did it affect you as filmmakers differently? And how did affect the way you filmed it?

MO: There's very little that distracts these families from their love and their loss. And when they're in Arlington that's a sacred time that they're spending with their loved ones. There really isn't anybody else there but the families, their memories, their efforts to celebrate lives lost too soon and, for four months in 2007, Jon and I and our cameras. There was a month where I was filming alone because of certain circumstances and at the end of that month I was feeling totally crushed. This stuff plays out in slow motion. When you see the same grief, the same wounds that will never heal, acted out day after day after day, you realize it's a pain that's never going to go away. Paula talks about going to a meeting of Gold Star mothers [who have lost a child in war] where a mother was talking about her son she lost in Vietnam. And Paula said, “Forty years. I realized that I was going to feel this loss…I was going to continue to love him for forty years. It's something that never ends.”

In the film there are no subtitles, no music, no graphics. You're just sort of placed in the cemetery as we were for four months and you begin to get a sense of what it might feel like to be trapped in Section 60.

KH: This film focuses as much if not more on the people who are left behind as it does on the people who they lose. You as documentary filmmakers often travel to dangerous places to capture important stories. Did seeing the way people reacted to the deaths of their loved ones, did being surrounded by the grief of those left behind make you think about your own loved ones who would be left behind if something were to happen to you? Did it make you reconsider the types of projects you'd want to embark on?

MO: One thing, universally, regardless of their political persuasion or feelings on the war, that parent after parent, husband after husband and wife after wife said was, “my loved one died serving the people that he loved and trying to do some good in the world.” I never want to leave any of the people that I love behind. But I also think it's very important to try to have a positive effect on the world. I think the positive effect that we can have as filmmakers is helping other people understand the world and enter places they couldn't otherwise enter. Not everyone can spend four months in Section 60. Watching this film and participating in this film is a way to begin to get a sense of what is going on. There are lots of places in the world that we as Americans need to understand a heck of a lot better than we do. I hope this helps inform the American public and helps us understand other people. The better we understand other people the more likely we are to all work together to build something useful and good.

JA: It compels you to go to the war zones. We've been lobbying to go to Afghanistan for 3 years. HBO is one of the few places that gives you the resources to tell these stories. And if we have a choice between going to Afghanistan and Alabama, we'll go to Afghanistan. I certainly was left wondering what would happen if I died. What it really made me think about was what I would feel like if my daughter, who is the same age as these soldiers, died. And it haunted me because I saw that… it's something that you can never be prepared for and something that you can never recover from.

KH: Besides watching the film, what else can people do?

MO: We have almost 200,000 people serving overseas right now. Write a letter saying thank you, send a package. Since the draft ended only a small portion of American society is participating in war directly. And they're participating in an enormous way. So many families have sent their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers overseas not once, not twice, not three times, but even four different times. They've done four tours of duty in some combination in Iraq and Afghanistan years away from families and friends and loved ones. It's important, no matter what your political persuasion, to say thank you.

There are so many families that shared stories with us who are not in the film. We wish we could have included them. We want the whole world to come to Section 60.

The other thing I think about all the time is in Section 60 we've lost 5,000 people. The loss that the Iraqi people have suffered in the last five years is horrific. The loss the Afghani people have suffered in the last five years is horrific, and each one of those holes is just as personal and just as deep as they are in Section 60.

HBO premieres Arlington documentary tonight
By William H. McMichael
Courtesy of The Army Times
13 October 2008

It isn’t likely to bring home the sorts of ratings “The Sopranos” scored for HBO.

So one must give the cable network kudos for putting the money, time and effort into producing a documentary with the decidedly noncommercial focus of the cemetery plot in Arlington, Virginia, where some of the nation’s war dead are buried, and where their families and friends come to mourn them.

“Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery” premieres nationally at 9 p.m. Eastern time Monday.

Section 60 is the final resting place for hundreds of troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the film’s focus is not on the troops themselves, per se, but on the impact of their deaths on those they left behind.

Those who knew them best were the honored guests Sunday night at a private premiere of the hourlong film, held in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Navy Memorial.

Afterward, a call by one family member for a round of applause for the filmmakers drew a sustained standing ovation.

The film, produced by the same team that produced the acclaimed documentary “Baghdad ER,” eschews voiceovers and melodramatic music, and isn’t judgmental. Instead, the viewer is essentially the camera, wandering from one mourner to another — wife, husband, mother, father, sister, brother, child — opening very private doors in a very public place.

The camera lingers, although it never stays too long — although some viewers may take exception.

“I doubt that it will be particularly popular,” said Mary Neiberger, whose son, Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, was killed in Baghdad on August 5, 2007. Neiberger said the film was well-done but added, “It’s too close to real … and I don’t think many people feel very comfortable or very entertained by that.”

But the film, although at times an overwhelmingly sad glimpse into the devastating hole left when death unexpectedly takes a loved one, also underscores how shared loss can turn a stranger’s shoulder into the comforting embrace of a friend.

At one point, for instance, two mourners see a man who’s been sleeping next to a grave for a couple of hours. Concerned, one woman takes him a bottle of water, which he gratefully accepts. A man who pines for his fiancée offers comforting words to a young woman at her husband’s grave.

“It was very powerful,” said Laura Cowherd, whose brother Leonard, an Army Second Lieutenant, was killed May 16, 2004 in Karbala, Iraq. “Sort of what we go through every day. The tears. The emotion. I think they did a good job.”

Every day, the film remembers to note, can be every bit if not more difficult than coping with the graveside visits.

“The person made a good point of what goes on after the death,” said Kimberly Hazelgrove, whose husband, Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brian Hazelgrove, was killed returning from a combat mission near Mosul nearly five years ago. “We’re raising young children. We’re working full-time jobs. We’re trying to live.”

Hazelgrove and her children, now 5, 7, 14 and 16, make their home in the D.C. area, although Brian isn’t buried at Arlington but back home in Edinburgh, Indiana, near his parents. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Joseph T. McCloud does rest at Arlington, where his wife Maggie said he asked to be buried “if anything should ever happen.”

“I love the phrase, ‘Arlington is where valor rests,’” she said. “It is. He’s surrounded by the best of the best. People that willingly gave their life for their country. We live here. I like being close by.”

But her young children, now 4, 7 and 9, do not care to visit the grave of their father, who died nearly two years ago in a helicopter crash in Anbar province, she said. “Still too fresh,” she said. “And I respect and honor that.”

In the film, some kids do come. Children put flowers at a grave. Another colors as her mother makes a rubbing of her husband’s tombstone. Yet another places candy canes at the graves and, standing at her father’s, says, “Merry Christmas, Daddy.”

The mourners include mothers and fathers, as well.

“Sixteen killed in Afghanistan,” one father recalled the headline on his computer screen. His wife, he said, had replied, “You know what that means, right? It means there’s going to be 16 mothers crying tonight.”

He added somberly, standing with his wife at their son’s grave, “She did not know she was gonna be one of them.”

The film’s unrelenting sadness is leavened by a visitor to Neiberger’s grave.

“Chris and I are going to share a beer,” says his brother, who plops down on the grass with two Samuel Adams Oktoberfest beers. “We’ll open a couple, and he can have one, and I can have one.” He proceeds to take a swig, and pours the equivalent out of the other bottle onto his brother’s grave, drawing chuckles from the premiere audience.

But more often, the camera finds heartbreak. The young woman over her husband’s grave, mouthing, “I love you.” Another telling a friend, “I wish I could have one more conversation with him.” Yet another: “Next week would have been our 20th wedding anniversary.”

“A lot of graves,” one woman remarks near the film’s end. “And I’m sure there’ll be a lot more down here before this war’s through.”

HBO goes behind the grieving at Arlington National Cemetery graves
By David Hinckley
Courtesy Of The New York Daily News
13 October 2008

As two women stand quietly in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, one muses that this has been called “the saddest acre in America.”

That's true, says the other. And it could also be called “the most honorable.”

Both ways, it makes for one of this fall's saddest hours of television.

Paula Davis at Arlington National Cemetery in the sorrowful HBO documentary ‘Section 60.' (Her Son Is Justin R. Davis)

Filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill have a straightforward mission here. They took their cameras to Section 60 and filmed people visiting graves. Most of the people speak a little, trying to explain their ritual or how they feel.

Not surprisingly, most of the words only hint at the devastation. When a preschool girl touches a headstone and says, “My daddy's under here,” all you can hear are echoes of Bob Dylan singing, “The emptiness is endless.”

She just doesn't know that yet.

It's coming.

The filmmakers could doubtless have filled their hour with heartbreaking stories, or just people lost in silent tears.

Wisely, they don't. One man sits cross-legged before his brother-in-law's stone and opens two Sam Adams bottles. He takes a few pulls from one, pours out a few swallows from the other.

“I'd been looking forward to hanging out with him after he got back,” he says.

It's those moments that remind the viewer there's no half-full in this glass. What the men and women buried here did won't be forgotten, and the mere fact that these visitors here have found a way to get through every day with this loss speaks well of the human spirit.

But the soldiers buried here are gone from the lives of people who wanted and needed them alive. There's no way to look at this that's not sad.

At the same time, Alpert and O'Neill deliberately sidestep overt politics.

They brush against it briefly when a widow says it upsets her to hear criticism of the war and President Bush because her husband “died for his country.”

Another woman relates, looking at a tombstone, how her 4-year-old daughter “told him that if he went into the Army, he'd go off to war and he'd be killed.”

That isn't a little girl talking about Iraq, of course. It's every little girl talking about every war, just as Section 60 is Flanders Field and every other silent place where visitors come to stand alone under a black umbrella in a pouring rain or sometime just lie down for hours.

“Section 60” doesn't make sense of it because there's no sense to be made. It's about the beginning of the process by which survivors carry on, a process that has no right or wrong or even rules – just respect for the sacrifice and the sadness.

13 October 2008

Among the rows and rows of gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery is one quadrant — Section 60 — reserved for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Some people have called Section 60 the saddest acre in America,” says a woman kneeling before one of the graves in a new documentary about the site.

Much of “Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery” focuses on weeping wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, fiances and friends mourning their war dead.

But, the woman adds, “I would also say it's one of the most honorable places in America.”

In the documentary that premieres tonight on HBO, mothers and wives place flowers, stones, pictures and mementos on the graves of loved ones, console one another and try to explain the deaths to young ones.

Filmmakers Matthew O'Neill and Jon Alpert, who previously made the award-winning HBO documentaries “Baghdad ER” and “Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq,” use no narration or even music (until the end) other than the taps playing softly in the background at another funeral or church bells tolling.

Instead, it concentrates on the people left behind and how they cope with their losses. Some bring armfuls of flowers, the cellophane wrapping crinkling in the wind. Others bring their own Windex to clean the white stones. Children draw pictures to leave for daddy for an approaching holiday.

“We come as often as we can,” explains a young mother with children putting candy canes on each grave. “We moved here so we could be near him, come out there for birthdays and anniversaries and all the special events.”

Alone at the stone, she whispers: “Another year without you.”

It can be quiet there. Sometimes you only hear flights in and out of nearby Reagan National Airport. Or a flock of geese tramping by and honking. But there are a lot of funerals.

“My God,” a woman says to another at one point. “There's five more rows here, in just two short years.”

There is some pomp and official bearing in these burials, from caskets drawn on horse-drawn caissons, to stirring words from military chaplains.

At a ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of a death, things are less formal. Loved ones step up one by one to drop a flower on the stone. A young man holds a boom box playing a country song about a soldier's sacrifice.

But much of what goes on in Section 60 is deeply personal. One man simply lies prone at his brother's grave and then returns with a cigar they had meant to share upon the soldier's return.

Mundane things happen there, too. A backhoe fills in dirt once the funeral is over.

Leaf blowers buzz. Power washers hose down the stones. Mylar balloons wriggle to be free. And as mothers gather in small groups in the rows to make some sense, a West Hartford mother adds her voice.

“We're connected to them,” says Leesa Phillipon. Her son, Lance Corporal Lawrence Philippon, a 2001 graduate of Conard High School, was killed in Iraq on May 8, 2005. That year, it was Mother's Day and his parents' 24th wedding anniversary.

“There's that part of the umbilical cord that did not get cut,” she says in the film. “It goes with them wherever they go. And they are with us, I do believe.”

In a commentary piece she wrote for The Hartford Courant in 2006, Philippon said her son took the family to Arlington when they visited him stationed at the Marine Barracks in Washington. “He said that day if anything happened to him, he wanted to be buried there.”

In the film, she tells another mourner, “One of the Gold Star meetings I go to, one of the mothers from Vietnam, she looked at me and she said, ‘Leesa, the older you get, the more they become a part of you.'

“And this, we're talking, it was on the eve of 40 years. And every time I hear one of them say how long it's been, I just tremble. Because I think: 40 years! I'm going to miss him for 40 years. And then some. But for 40 years and plus, our love grows. Our love doesn't die.”

Then she got up and walked away, down the aisles of gravestones.

The Things Their Families Carried
Courtesy of The New York Times
Published: October 10, 2008

Documentaries come into being in lots of ways, but not many have begun with a phone call of condolence made to a graveyard.

Such was the catalyst for “Section 60,” a somber film on HBO Monday night about the impromptu community that has evolved in the part of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia where the war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are being buried. For four months last year the filmmakers, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, more or less camped out in Section 60 with their cameras, capturing the stages and types of mourning of spouses, parents, children and friends who came

“Section 60” filmmakers Matthew O’Neill, left, and Jon Alpert

In tone, the film is light years away from the men’s acclaimed “Baghdad ER,” an often gruesome look at an Army Combat Support Hospital in Iraq, which won four Emmy Awards in 2006. Yet the two films have a direct connection: Lance Corporal Robert T. Mininger, 21, who is seen dying of a shrapnel wound in the harrowing final moments of “Baghdad ER.”

In completing that film, Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Alpert made contact with Lance Corporal Mininger’s mother, Paula Zwillinger of Lagrangeville, New York, as did Sheila Nevins, HBO’s president for documentary films. Friendships were forged, and Ms. Nevins took to calling Ms. Zwillinger every June 6, the anniversary of Lance Corporal Mininger’s death in 2005. Last year that call proved revelatory for Ms. Nevins.

“I said, ‘How are you doing, Paula?’ and she said, ‘I’m with Robert,’ ” Ms. Nevins recalled. “I said, ‘Oh,’ thinking she probably was in church. I said, ‘Are you alone?’ And she said no, so I thought she was with Larry, her husband. She said, ‘No, I’m with other mothers and widows.’ I thought it was a support group.”

But Ms. Zwillinger was in Section 60, visiting her son’s grave, and as she told Ms. Nevins of the cemetery and the extended family of survivors who can be found there any given day, Ms. Nevins knew there was a story that needed documenting.

“She presented this film to me,” Ms. Nevins said. “It wasn’t a pitch, it was a description of a place she was at. But I saw it as a film.”

Ms. Nevins dispatched Mr. Alpert and Mr. O’Neill to Section 60. The resulting film is full of stark, unadorned vignettes of the people who come there to visit the graves of loved ones. There are no traditional documentary-style interviews; just a camera bearing witness as parents, widows and children talk to gravestones, or to themselves, or to one another.

“We were there for four months, almost every day,” Mr. O’Neill said. “Basically living in the cemetery, embedded with the workers, with the families, with the mourners.”

This is not the antiseptic postcard Arlington. The film captures loved ones leaving flowers, children’s drawings, photographs; if a graveyard can be alive, this part of Arlington is, in marked contrast to other sections.

“It’s green and white, green and white, green and white,” Mr. O’Neill said, “and then there’s this multicolored wound where Section 60 is, popping out of the landscape, where there are bright flowers, and mementos. It’s colorful in a way that, ‘We’re just trying to will everybody back to life.’ ”

The filmmaking was, of course, decidedly different than it was in that emergency room in Iraq.

“In ‘Baghdad ER’ the job is to get them in the hospital, get them out of the hospital as fast as they can, because that’s how they save their lives,” said Mr. Alpert, 59. “But here the motion has come to a stop. But the emotions haven’t come to a stop. The emotions never, never come to an end.”

And that, the filmmakers said, made the new documentary in some ways more wrenching to make.

“I never cried while holding the camera in ‘Baghdad ER,’ ” said Mr. O’Neill, 30, who met Mr. Alpert through his daughter, a friend in college. “I was always focused on the moment and how things were moving. More times than I can count in ‘Section 60,’ as someone’s crying and sharing and talking, I’m dripping tears on the lens.”

Much has been made about the restrictions on photographing the coffins returning home in these wars, but “Section 60” has the full range of images: graves being dug, coffins, funerals, honor guards, weeping relatives.

The cemetery — though it has had its controversies regarding access — permits some degree of media coverage of funerals there with family permission, said John C. Metzler Jr., Arlington’s Superintendent. But whereas most news outlets come just to grab a quick story, he said, Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Alpert impressed him with their diligence, and with the respect they showed.

“They were attending my morning meetings; they were in the cemetery for several months,” he said. “And they came in suits. They didn’t come in jeans with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and putting their coffee cups on headstones.”

The suits helped, the filmmakers acknowledged, but so did tact and patience.

“Oftentimes you would see a family go up to the grave and they would just launch themselves onto the tombstone and start crying,” Mr. Alpert said. “Our instinct as reporters was ‘We have to film that.’ And we didn’t. We would stand there, and then we would go over without the cameras running, and we would talk to people. And we would explain who we were, why we were there, and ask if it would be possible for them to share with us.”

Ms. Zwillinger, who receives a consultant credit on the film, had a simple explanation for why so many agreed to that sharing. “By talking to someone about your child, it keeps the memory alive,” she said. “To us, they’re not gone.”

Paula Zwillinger, center, whose son is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, spoke with Sheila Nevins, right, of HBO at a screening of the film on Monday in New York

Jessica Gray, a young widow who is seen at the opening of the film bringing her infant daughter, Ava, to the grave of the father she met only once, Staff Sergeant Yance T. Gray, described what went through her mind when the filmmakers approached her: “I remember thinking, ‘If I can help anyone else understand that you can make it through this …’ ”

Jessica Gray, with her infant daughter, Ava, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to visit the grave of her husband, Staff Sergeant Yance T. Gray

Last Monday at an HBO screening room in Manhattan, many of those in the film saw it for the first time. There was laughter as Rick Miller shares a beer with his brother-in-law, Specialist Christopher T. Neiberger, by pouring it onto his grave, and again when Greg Medina takes a nap on the grave of his son, Lance Corporal Brian A. Medina. There were a few tears as well, but this audience had already done most of its crying.

Though the film is being broadcast in the heat of an election, the filmmakers say they don’t consider it a political work but a film about the soldiers and the holes left in the lives of those who loved them. Mr. Alpert, though, does see a political application.

“I personally feel compelled to try and do whatever I can do to make the American public think about what it means to go to war,” he said. “I’m not telling them who to vote for, but they have to think about it. They have to always know that there’s a war going on, and that as they enter the voting booths there are people who are crying in Section 60.”

By Tony Perry
Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times
October 13, 2008

In “Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery,” the stepfather of a U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan remembers the moments just before his wife got the dreadful notification.

She had heard on the news that 16 troops had been killed and, her husband says, she knew “that meant there will be 16 mothers who will be crying tonight. She didn't know she would be one of them.”

There is a lot of crying in “Section 60,” an intimate and achingly personal look at that section of the famed cemetery where U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.

The government guards the privacy of families with loved ones buried at Arlington, and news coverage at the cemetery is limited. But filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill were granted seemingly unlimited access both to the site and the grieving families.

The result is a powerful documentary about service and sacrifice and the American families that bear both with dignity and strength. There is no narrator, no script; the emotions are raw and unrehearsed.

 “He was my whole world,” says the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. “I know he's in a better place. They can't shoot at him now.”

A wife talks of her husband's death: “Our love didn't die.” Says another widow, “Next week would have been our 20th wedding anniversary. It's just tough all around.”

A soldier meets the family of a buddy killed in combat and tries to comfort them. “Every single time I dream he's there,” he says. A mother says of her dead son, “I would take his place in a heartbeat.”

Families grieve in similar yet individual ways. Some mothers bring their children to show them Daddy's grave. One widow moved close to Arlington, Virginia, to make the trips easier. Families come on holidays and anniversaries; they bond with others who have suffered the same loss. They pray and weep. They bring flowers and sometimes food. They talk to the headstones.

Without trying, “Section 60” proves anew that the battlefield may be the only truly integrated American workplace. The families are white, black, Latino, Asian; a couple who emigrated from Pakistan 25 years ago to enjoy the freedom of America earlier mourn their son and pray.

This is the third in a trilogy of Iraq-related documentaries by Alpert and O'Neill for HBO. The first was “Baghdad ER,” about the frantic pace of a military hospital, the second was “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq,” about soldiers, Marines and sailors who survived their wounds and felt reborn.

“Section 60” is a perfect coda to the earlier efforts. Like the others, it is resolutely nonpolitical, neither condemning nor supporting American foreign policy, merely showing the cost of war and the people who pay it.

The closest any of the family members comes to a political statement is the widow of an Army staff sergeant who admits to being upset by people who feel the Iraq war was a mistake: “It's hard to hear things they say when you feel your husband died for his country.”

The sister of a fallen soldier says that Section 60 has been called “the saddest acre in America.”

She adds her own view: “I would say, too, it is one of the most honorable places in America.”

The filmmakers have done the cemetery and the families forever linked to it proud.


HBO: Your previous film, ‘Baghdad ER,' was a gut-wrenching look at the human cost of the Iraq war as seen through doctors and soldiers who served there. ‘Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery' brings the war experience back home. What inspired you to make the film?

Jon Alpert: I think we have to credit (HBO's) Sheila Nevins who was haunted by her personal contacts with people from the films we've made. In this case it was Paula Zwillinger, the mother of the Marine who dies at the end of Baghdad ER. Her son is buried in Arlington Cemetery. And Sheila called Paula who was at Arlington Cemetery on the second anniversary of her son Bobby's death and found Paula in Section 60. And Sheila could feel the emotion. And the next thing Matt and I knew we were standing in Arlington Cemetery with Paula. And the same type of deep, haunting emotion that we tried to capture is what we felt that day. That's really the genesis of this film.

Matthew O'Neill: And it's different from ‘Baghdad ER,' because all the action and visceral pain that you feel when you are thrust into ‘Baghdad ER' is uniquely different than the overwhelming sense of loss, love, and yearning in Section 60. It's a totally different emotional place. And yet both relate directly to war.

Jon Alpert: And as reporters and citizens, we look for ways in which we can communicate something about war – and very specifically about the wars that we are involved in right now. There isn't a lot of war coverage anymore on TV or even in the general conversation right now. It's been wiped out by the sort of war on Wall Street. But people are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we're trying to help people understand that.

Matthew O'Neill: It's important to remember that there are many, many families out there that continue to confront the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a concrete reality that they are dealing with on a daily basis. And you see it in Arlington Cemetery, and you see it at military bases across the country. These families are largely invisible to most Americans.

HBO: The film doesn't take a position on the war, or have an agenda. Was that a conscious choice?

Matthew O'Neill: Actually, I think we do have an agenda, because we've had an agenda with all of our films, which is to bring awareness and to raise people's consciousness about what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and what's happening here at home as it relates to the wars. You know, you never see the faces of the fallen in the film because we're paying attention to the faces of everyone who is left behind. And whether you fall on the “right” side of the war or the “left” side of the war, or someplace in between, everyone needs to understand in concrete terms what war means, its ramifications, and how it affects Americans and American families.

HBO: What did you learn from them? And how did the making of the film evolve as you began capturing their stories?

Matthew O'Neill: Well, we really became part of the cemetery. We got there first thing in the morning when the groundskeepers were arriving, and we left as they were locking the gates, almost every day for four months. We became part of the community and were accepted by the community. We never pushed in with our cameras when we weren't wanted. But when appropriate, we did become part of those intimate, sacred moments. You know, there has never been anything like Section 60 at Arlington before, where the people who are recently killed overseas are all being buried in the same place, and it's created a community of Section 60 families who can lean on each other and support new people that come into, as they call it, “the club that no one ever wants to be part of.”

HBO: What can viewers learn from these families, and the film?

Jon Alpert: I think there's something quite important, which is: if the sacrifice of these families goes unknown, and if the cost of war goes unknown…that to some degree we are all dishonoring these families and the soldiers. Because it's really, really important that the American people think about who pays the price when we wage war. We shouldn't go to war if we are uneducated about that cost. We shouldn't let people make decisions for us. And we should think about the people who sacrificed, and the fact that it could be your next door neighbor or your son or your daughter someday. But you shouldn't have your eyes and ears covered.

Matthew O'Neill: Of course many of these families have political opinions, some are against the war – and some for the war. But they do not want to put their kids' service and sacrifice – nor would I – in a political context, or use it for political gain. All the families at Arlington Cemetery want the memories of their loved ones preserved, and want their heroism and sacrifice known to other people. They were all our allies in helping to tell this story.

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