Arlington National Cemetery: Here, in a rolling meadow of America's most hallowed land, the country's ledger of loss from the war in Iraq is slowly being filled.
Tucked in a pocket far off the regular tourist route, Section 60 of the historic cemetery has been reserved as the final resting place for those who die in Iraq.
Here lie, among others, the first Coast Guardsman to die in combat since the Vietnam War, a 26-year Army officer on her last assignment before retiring, a young Sikh from India who had dreamed of being a U.S. soldier, and a Marine lieutenant who perished trying to help his wounded men.
Here, too, are soldiers from Saipan, Samoa, Cambodia and India, others from Virginia to Ohio, Colorado to California – all hailed at their funerals as decent, patriotic individuals willing to sacrifice their lives to bring freedom to a far-off land.
In all, Memorial Day will find 64 of the Iraq dead buried in this corner of the nation's premier national cemetery. The cremated remains of one other soldier, Army Chief Warrant Officer Eric Smith, rest in the cemetery's aboveground columbarium.
At last year's holiday, which came three weeks after President Bush deemed the major combat of Operation Iraqi Freedom to be over, just 20 had been interred here.
These graves, of which three on a recent visit were too fresh to have marble markers yet, represent just 8 percent of the 800 Iraq war dead. Any active-duty service member who dies in the Iraq conflict, by combat or by other means, is entitled to be laid to rest at Arlington. Most, however, opt to be buried in family plots or national cemeteries closer to home.
But others choose to join the 290,000 storied generals and statesmen, and little-known gunny sergeants and spouses whose graves salt Arlington, which stretches for 624 acres just across the Potomac River from Washington.
Family members of these 64 men and one woman say that, to their loved ones, burial in the same sacred earth that holds presidents, Supreme Court justices and legendary generals John J. Pershing and George C. Marshall would be the ultimate honor.
That is particularly true for the families of a half-dozen immigrant troops who lie in Section 60. The mother of Marine Corporal Kemaphoom Chanwongse, who came to America with his family from Thailand at age 9, said she was awed at the egalitarian nature of Arlington, where an ordinary man like her son could be laid to rest in the same cemetery as John F. Kennedy.
“I never dreamed that I could ever step into a place like that,” Tan Patchem told reporters last year after her 22-year-old son, nicknamed “Chuckles” by his Marine buddies for his sunny nature, was killed in an ambush near Nasiriyah in the early days of the war. “This is the best place for him to stay.”
Section 60 is a five-acre sanctuary where dozens of rows of white headstones spill down a gentle slope to a manicured field dotted with cherry trees and hardwoods, songbirds and squirrels.
Formerly the site of temporary military housing, the section is one of the few remaining open expanses in the rapidly filling cemetery. Officials said the plot was chosen for the Iraq dead because it can accommodate the large number of mourners and military honor formations these funerals bring.
When full, the section will hold more than 13,000 souls – twice as many as rest there today. The Iraq dead form little more than one row, dwarfed by phalanxes of World War II, Korea and Vietnam War vets.
Also sharing the section are casualties from the war in Afghanistan, the first Persian Gulf War, the 2000 al Qaeda attack on the destroyer USS Cole, the 1992-93 Somalia intervention, Iraq's 1987 attack on the frigate USS Stark, and the terrorist bombing of a U.S. barracks in Beirut in 1983.
One recent rainy day, in between two funerals for troops killed in Iraq, a visitor from Big Spring, Texas, looked for the grave of a soldier from his hometown. Weighing on Sam Castro's mind was his daughter, Samantha, who that week was graduating from Army basic training. At 19, Samantha Castro is gung-ho, itching to go to Iraq.
Surveying the graves, Sam Castro was gripped with ambivalence about the war and his daughter's determination to join the fight that has already claimed so many young lives.
“You get mad (at the course of the war), and say, “Get them out of there,' ” said Castro, a small businessman. “But then if you do, all of these here would have died for nothing.”
That is not a sentiment found in the eulogies given in Arlington for those who died in Iraq. What unites this disparate population is an apparently universal belief held by the fallen in the rightness of their mission in Iraq, their dedication to the defense of freedom even at the cost of their own lives and their devotion to duty, honor, country.
“Please know that I died defending my family and my beliefs,” Army Staff Sereant Nino Livaudais, 23, of Davis County, Utah, wrote in a last letter to his loved ones. An elite Army Ranger, Livaudais died April 3, 2003, in a suicide bomb attack in western Iraq.
“I just hope in the event of my death, that a lot more of my comrades and fellow Americans' lives will be saved,” Livaudais wrote in a letter released after his death by Fort Benning, Georgia, officials.
Tom Sherlock, the cemetery's historian, says that is the essence of Arlington, and of Section 60 within it. It is here that those who fall on the battlefields of Iraq are being woven into the permanent fabric of American history, Sherlock said.
“If a loved one is buried here, we can guarantee that their loved ones will never be forgotten,” he said. “As long as there is an Arlington Cemetery, their sacrifice will be remembered.”
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard