Reporter’s Notebook: Visiting the Graves of the Heroes of Afghanistan and Iraq

By Scott Shulman

Mar 21, 2013 6:29pm

abc arlington kb 130321 wblog Reporters Notebook: Visiting the Graves of the Heroes of Afghanistan and Iraq

It doesn’t take long to realize that Section 60 is different.

Perfectly aligned headstones punctuate scores of “sections” that is Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands of brave heroes.  Section 60 is not the destination for long lines of tourists who make their way across these rolling hills every season.  Stopping regularly to take photos, they move instead, steadily, along asphalt paths to the Kennedy graves, Arlington House and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Few of these eager vacationers have even heard of Section 60; it is a work in progress.  Like a memory box half full, it can hold more stories.  Only a short distance from the main gate, you can wander away from the crowds and see the colorful shapes that are Section 60′s photographs, flowers, coins, stones.  Even jewelry and birthday cards are taped, glued and Velcro-ed to the sparkling new headstones that bear only the basic details of our nation’s most recent heroes.

Long before I spent weeks in Iraq and Afghanistan covering conflict for ABC News, I visited the cemeteries of our nation’s war dead.  From Normandy to Luxembourg, I have read the bare details of some who lived a full life, and many barely out of their teenage years.  Stark letters etched in stone that record a name, rank, branch of service, and dates of birth and death – the most basic information.

But enough to give you chills, especially in the 30-degree weather that can be our nation’s capital in late March. The fields of Arlington Cemetery are a powerful reminder of the high price of war.  I walked slowly past Section 55 …. 59, and finally Section 60. Just a few cars were parked at the curb, and all bore the same “Gold Star” commemorative license plate signifying loss of an immediate family member in one of our nation’s conflicts.

A middle-aged mother tended her son’s grave.  Soon two other mothers approached her, and like the museum visitor who didn’t pay for the tour, I stood nearby, hoping to learn something about the people around me.  The mothers had only just met, but they had an instant bond.  They talked about coping, mourning and what gets them through the day.

I felt unworthy of what I was hearing.   It wasn’t my child who made the ultimate sacrifice.

I slowly moved away, past rows of war dead, each stone bearing the dates and abbreviations that said so much with so little. 2009, 2011, 2012, OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom).   Words like “Extortion 17,” the code name for an ill-fated Chinook helicopter that crashed west of Kabul in 2011, killing 38 fighters, 25 of them Special Operations troops, including 15 Navy SEALS.

What I had just witnessed felt tragic, yet hopeful, that these parents could depend on each other to cope.  What I was about to witness was only tragic. A single visitor approached the last row of headstones.  Solitary, with a U.S. Army baseball cap in hand, he walked among the stones  and suddenly dropped to his knees, studying a single headstone.  He bent forward slowly, embracing the stone, then lay face down, his arms draped around the monument.

Again, I had to turn away.  I glanced back minutes later to see him rise just enough to place his hat on top of the grave.  I couldn’t bear to watch any longer and left to wander a nearby section that represented wars long forgotten, devoid of the decorations that make Section 60 as current as today’s headlines.

If you are planning a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, be sure to allow extra time for Section 60.  Supporting our troops includes supporting the Gold Star families who have lost their sons and daughters to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Visit the Tomb of the Unknown and visit the hundreds we have known.  They’ve only just been laid to rest in Section 60, and their loved ones are there every day.  They will appreciate that you have not forgotten.

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