It was the busiest week of the war at Arlington National Cemetery: One by one, young men who had died in Iraq were honored and buried last week, here amid the white marble stones that mark the losses from every other American conflict.
By Friday, there were seven new graves of the war dead — eight, counting the 25-year-old airman who died when his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan. In all, 17 fatalities from Iraq are being interred at Arlington.
Even as the fighting winds down and public attention wanders elsewhere, the final business of war is taking place in this country's preeminent military cemetery.
“We as a nation, we as a conscience, owe these people the dignity and respect that they've earned, and that's what we try to translate here at Arlington,” said Thomas L. Sherlock, the cemetery's historian for 28 years. “Hopefully, when the families of these people come back years later, they can have a sense of that pride, and as time goes by, we can be part of the healing process. Because we can guarantee that their loved ones will never be forgotten.”
Certainly, funerals are a common occurrence at Arlington, where 285,000 people have been laid to rest since 1864. Every weekday, about 25 additional people are buried on the immaculate green lawns dotted with cherry and crabapple trees. But in peacetime, these burials usually involve older veterans who have lived out their years and often have few survivors. In contrast, the services last week in some cases drew several hundred people, including military personnel in uniform mourning the loss of a fellow service member. The youngest of the dead was 23; the oldest, 31.
When workers using front-end loaders and other heavy equipment finished covering a grave after one service last week, they immediately turned to digging up the adjacent plot for the next fatality waiting to be buried. As the U.S. Army Band departed after playing “America the Beautiful” at an Army Captain's service, it was replaced by the U.S. Navy Band, which played the same song for a fallen Navy pilot. The Iraq fatalities are being buried together, in an expanse of ground northwest of the Pentagon.
But the pace has been nothing compared with that of the Vietnam War, of course. At the height of that fighting, in 1967 and 1968, Sherlock said, it was not uncommon to bury two or three combat fatalities a day, and sometimes more. About 8,000 Vietnam War dead are interred there, Sherlock said.
For most military personnel, Arlington remains the resting place of heroes, and many of the most recent wartime fatalities had requested burial there on forms they were required to complete before being deployed.
Air Force Staff Sergeant Jason C. Hicks had long ago made his wishes clear. Hicks, 25, of Pageland, South Carolina, was one of six Air Force members killed March 23 when their HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter went down in a thunderstorm in Afghanistan during a rescue effort. On Tuesday, he was buried, as he had wished, at Arlington, with several hundred friends and relatives in attendance.
“It was Jason's decision,” said his sister, Janet Barbee, 31, of Monroe, North Carolina. “He always said that was the ultimate honor, the most heroic place to be laid to rest if he died in that way. The family could have overruled his decision if we had wanted to, but we would never do that.”
Arlington was designated for the war dead. On June 15, 1864, when it must have seemed as if the deaths from the Civil War would never stop coming, President Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war named the original 200 acres as a cemetery for the military. Creation of the cemetery was also a slap in the face of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who had lived there before the war; the federal government had seized the property. In time, the cemetery grew to the present 625 acres.
Soldiers from the American Revolution and the War of 1812 were reburied there about 1900. And today, any grieving family can be reassured that the standard-honors ceremony is little different from that given a soldier of World War I — a uniformed casket team, a team that fires off a volley of shots, the flag over the coffin folded and presented to the family, the bugler playing taps. There is no cost for the ceremony, the grave site, the tombstone or maintenance.
Over the years, explorers, athletes and military heroes have been interred there: Robert E. Peary and Matthew A. Henson, who discovered the North Pole; World War II Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy; bandleader Glenn Miller; heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. Two of the most popular tourist sites at the cemetery are the Tomb of the Unknowns and the grave of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy and William Howard Taft are the only presidents buried there.
“We talk about the American melting pot. Well, this is a melting pot as well,” Sherlock said. “I call it democracy in death.”
Generals and Privates get the same white stone, he said, and officers are intermingled among the rank-and-file enlisted members. A tour of Arlington also offers a history of U.S. wars and a realization that the nation's youth have always sacrificed their lives for their country.
“I can walk through the cemetery and see a headstone with the date June 1944 and the person was 25 years old, and I know they died in the [Allied] invasion of Europe,” Sherlock said. “It personalizes it, and for a moment then, when we stop and read that name, we make them immortal.”
As last week's services were underway, tour buses kept at a respectful distance. The news media were out in force, recording the private losses from another U.S. war. “When the family starts putting roses on the grave and lingers, cut your cameras off. Give them a few minutes of peace,” a cemetery spokeswoman instructed the television and print photographers. “If you can even look the other way, that would be good.”
As Janet Barbee sat in the family row of green folding chairs, as a chill wind whipped through the graveyard, she thought about her little brother — how he had loved being a volunteer firefighter in their tiny home town, then how he had loved being in the Air Force. She looked out over the rows and rows of plain white markers, and she felt somehow reassured. This was what her brother had wanted; it was the last thing his family and his country could do for him.
“I agree with Jason now,” Barbee said after she had returned home. “It is an honor to be laid beside all the other heroes — if it weren't for all those soldiers there, we wouldn't be living in the free world we live in today. We have all of them to thank for that.”
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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