First published in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volume 5. http://www.semopress.com/books/proud-to-be-writing-5/
Our tour bus stopped among other tour buses, and our driver, George, grabbed the microphone.
“Okay, kids,” he said. “I know that Arlington is a beautiful place, and while you’re here, you may see a funeral. This is an active cemetery. I’m going to ask you for a favor though. If you see that horse-drawn carriage with a flag draped casket, don’t snap that picture. That’s someone’s loved one under that flag. It’s someone who has served our nation. As a Vietnam vet with buddies in here, I’m asking that you just don’t take that picture.”
My students rose from their seats and started filing toward the front of the bus and down the steps out into the parking lot. Once everyone was off, we gathered in front of the visitor center to get a count.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather for a day of touring the memorials and monuments in and around Washington D.C. It was a relatively quiet Monday morning, and the sky was a clear and deep infantry blue. It was a little cool, only 52 degrees in May, but the sun was still low in the morning sky. There was a light breeze blowing through the trees that reminded us that summer hadn’t arrived yet.
I passed through the visitors’ center with my students and the other chaperones, but I had already discussed with them that I would be splitting from the group once we were inside.
The tour guide headed off toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the gaggle of students and parent chaperones followed. As we reached Eisenhower Avenue, I got the other adults’ attention, and pointed that I was heading left when they were going straight. They nodded, and I started down Eisenhower to visit my friends.
Arlington National Cemetery, I thought as I looked out over the rows of white headstones disappearing over the rolling hills.
Damn, it’s been a long time. Too long; hell, last time I was here, Josh and Shawn still had temporary markers. It must have been 12 or 13 years ago. Too damn long.
I walked down Eisenhower Avenue toward Section 60, the final resting place for all of my friends who are buried here. Even part of my great uncle’s remains are buried here in a mass grave with the rest of his B-25 crew. They crashed a month before D-Day, but they didn’t make it home until 2010. I had the honor of escorting my great uncle’s casket back to our hometown.
The students I brought here are tourists. They are here to see the sights: the changing of the guard, the Kennedy grave-sites, Robert E. Lee’s house. They won’t understand. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we did our jobs well enough that they won’t ever have to get it. I, on the other hand, have had half a dozen or more friends buried here since the last time I visited.
I walked past the different sections, 54, 55, 59 and looked at the stones. Born 1920, died 1944, and his wife Vera. Born 1926, died 1944…
As I neared section 60, I felt the tears coming closer. I was choking back tears, but I wasn’t even sure why. I was never particularly close to the friends I have buried here, and I never met my great uncle. I played golf with Jason, helped train Kyle, and I got to know Josh pretty well, but I wasn’t really part of his clique.
Come on, Jarrod. Get your shit together. I kept walking.
I stopped and downloaded the Arlington app on my phone. I knew were Kyle was located, and I had an idea about Josh and Shawn, but I wasn’t certain. Plus, messing with my phone gave me something else to think of. I won’t have to cry if I’m occupied.
Here goes, I tell myself. I’ll visit each of the guys, have a good cry, then I’ll get back to my students.
I reached the middle of section 60 and turned into the grass, walking between the stones. The last time I was here Josh and Shawn were the last two buried in their row. Section 60 still had a lot of empty space then. Now it’s filled.
I found Josh and Shawn, right next to each other. I spent a few moments there, took some photos, and brushed bird shit off of one of the stones. Then I turned to look for Kyle’s grave.
My mother and stepfather were here when Kyle was buried. I was in Iraq, but I saw a photo that someone had taken, and I saw my parents there in the back of the crowd. It just so happened that they were on vacation in Virginia when everything happened, so they were able to be there. I was glad. Now, my mom is gone too. I wish I had that picture of them there in the back of the funeral gathering.
I walked through the rows of headstones, looking at the numbers, and counting down until I reached Kyle’s marker, Section 60, 8666.
Just as I spotted Kyle’s stone, I saw her; a beautiful young woman in her early twenties, I would say. She wore a blue dress that stopped just above her knees covered by a tan overcoat that hung open and nude high heels. Her lips were bright red and her blonde hair hung to her shoulders blowing in the cool morning breeze.
At first, she seemed out of place to me, as she walked among the stones in my direction.
She walked through the grass, careful not to let her heels sink in, until she found her spot. There was a small shade tree between stones, and I could tell she knew it well. She approached the tree, placed a blanket at its base and sat down.
I did my best not to make eye contact with her. I wanted so badly to talk to her, to ask questions, to tell her that I’m sorry. As I glanced in her direction, I could see the tears on her face, as she sat there twisting her wedding ring around her finger.
I couldn’t fight the tears anymore. She was so young, her whole life ahead of her and already a widow. He had probably been just as young, just as much life ahead of him. She reminded me of my own wife when I went off to war for the first time. What if? I wondered.
They were probably just starting out, newlyweds, excited to start living once he came home, but he couldn’t. She sat there crying softly, talking to him. Later, she moved closer to the stone. Sitting in the grass above her dead husband’s body, talking to him as if he were calling from overseas. She told him what she’d been doing, and how much she missed him. She shared some gossip from her friends, and talked about having dinner with his parents.
So young. Such a tragedy.
I was happy to see beer bottle caps on Kyle’s headstone. Sunday had been the anniversary of his death, and other friends had been there recently. I knelt and cried. I apologized, feeling guilty but knowing I couldn’t have done anything to change the circumstances.
After spending a few moments, I stood and started to walk away, but then I turned back toward her. I wanted so badly to walk over and say something. I was there for the same reason, to cry and talk to old friends who never came home. In the end, I couldn’t. What would I say? Besides, this was her time with her husband.
I stood there, crying for my own friends, and for her, and for her husband, whom I’d never met. Such a shame, I thought. I walked one row further and found Jason and Derek, and several other soldiers’ names on a stone. They were good guys. I knew what it meant when I saw several names on one stone. It meant that they couldn’t figure out who was who after the helicopter accident. Still another row over I found my great uncle’s stone, with a few other names on it; the unidentifiable remains buried together.
While I was there, visiting other graves, another young woman approached. She said hello to the girl in blue. Maybe they knew each other. Maybe their husbands had served together, or maybe they had met here, while mourning their men.
They sat in the grass, two stones apart, talking to each other and talking to their husbands.
This, America, is what sacrifice looks like. This is what I wish my students could see and understand.