Those left behind: The legacy of Arlington’s Section 60
Larry Downing is a Reuters senior staff photographer assigned to the White House. He shares that duty with three other staff photographers. He has lived in Washington since 1977 and has been assigned to cover the White House, since 1978. President Barack Obama is the sixth president Larry has photographed.
“People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” George Orwell
Veteran’s Day is a time to remember “All gave some….Some gave all.”
Before reaching the new gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery’s ‘Section 60’ it’s easy to recognize why a simple, quilted, patch of green grass and white stones buried alongside the quiet banks of the Potomac River troubles the heart.
Names etched into fresh marble tell the sad tale of early death …Travis L. Youngblood…. Justin Ray Davis….Andy D. Anderson….Thomas J. Barbieri Jr….. Kenneth E. Zeigler II….James R. McIlvaine …. America’s varsity players benched early in the game.
‘Section 60’ is America’s promise to honor its warriors for first serving, and then dying, in the strange dusts on foreign soil.
Its 22211 zip code is the final address for roughly ten-percent of America’s dead from combat action in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 570 service members from “Operation Enduring Freedom” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” are “interred, inurned or memorialized with honor inside the cemetery.”
Spend time in the section and you can’t help but breathe the restless cloud of uneasiness that hangs over the calm symmetry of the graves. Your eyes lie; you actually “see” the pieces of shattered hearts and lost ambitions scattered across the manicured grounds.
You “feel” why this is America’s field of broken dreams.
Fathers, mothers, widows and children are all lost as they chase the ghost of vanished love inside the shadows of a sinister fog.
Watch an abandoned friend or family member alone in anguish softly whispering to the dead and you’ll realize the devil deals mean cards.
Cards that have forced a grieving mother to stare at the letters of her baby’s name chiseled onto a gravestone not long after those same letters were neatly printed on a new birth certificate.
No wife should ask God “why” the only man who ever promised to protect her is gone.
And no child should ever cry out to mommy “where’s my daddy?”
An ‘Arlington’ funeral means a father will never experience the joy of giving his daughter’s hand away in marriage.
Television got it right when they called ‘Section 60’ “the saddest acre in America.”
Robert E. Drawl Jr…… Kevin D. Grieco…. Charles E. Wyckoff… Michael Ross Stahlman….
Death is the greatest equalizer; only after a funeral does the phrase: “…all men are created equal” written in the nation’s ‘Declaration of Independence’ take life.
Generals lie buried the same depth underground as the men and women they commanded in life.
Black, white, brown, or yellow skins are equal. There is no racial prejudice after death.
Republicans and Democrats agree…In silence.
Gays are finally treated with respect. No one asks…no one tells…
Passages recited from the Koran are as beautiful as those recited from the Bible.
The impact of two distant wars became personal once the “knocks on the door” delivered the horrifying news and haunted a house forever. Prayers that the Pentagon “got it wrong” vanished when asked if they wanted an ‘Arlington’ funeral.
‘Arlington’ is an idyllic hillside cemetery and is easily seen while driving on the Arlington Memorial Bridge towards Virginia. It’s the last stop straight ahead.
It’s also the last stop for those sons and daughters who were killed after announcing to their family they wanted to be “Army Strong” or part of “The Few…The Proud” and then fearlessly joined the deadliest profession.
They volunteered; even while never reading the frightening draft notice of their father’s generation. One sent on behalf of the President of the United States during the Vietnam War beginning with the terrifying, “Greeting….You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States….”
Both the draft and that war ended in the 1970’s.
The names of 58,261 brave Americans are etched into the “wall” inside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the other end of that same bridge.
About the time energetic eighteen year-old college freshmen are searching for an “awesome” campus tailgate party, America’s young soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen are finishing their individual combat specialty schools and boarding the express bus to the front lines. Thoughts of joining sororities and fraternities are long gone. Learning the dangers of the “kill radius” of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and recognizing the “signs and symptoms of hypovolemic shock” are more important. A severed femoral artery is quick to kill in the field.
Today’s military volunteer swears to an oath to do “whatever it takes” to hold the protective umbrella over the nation during the storms in violent times.
Doubts of joining the military were erased after witnessing an attack on their nation September 11, 2001.
Things became clear for them in the dawn’s morning light.
‘Section 60’ is one of approximately 70 sections inside the 624 fenced acres of ‘Arlington’ where more than 320,000 heros are honored. The first military burial took place in 1864 during the American Civil War when the cemetery opened.
The U.S. Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) maintains a sentry inside the cemetery on duty every second of every day.
The ceremonial guards from each branch of service provide military honors during the somber burial of one of their own.
Temporary paper markers are placed in the dirt above the grave after a funeral while waiting for the permanent marble stones.
Ryan Patrick Baumann….Eric W. Hall….Colby J. Umbrell….James C. Edge….
A triangular folded American flag is all that remains to hold for the devastated family members during a funeral in ‘Section 60.’
“Gold Star” mother Lyvonne Lightfoot hugs the flag that draped her 20 year-old son’s casket on August 4, 2009. Anthony M. Lightfoot died in Afghanistan, July 2009, while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.
Rebecca Baldeosingh holds the flag from her husband’s casket at his funeral on August 4, 2009, after he was killed last June in Iraq.
The Iraq war made Laura Youngblood an early widow in 2005 while pregnant with her second child. Husband Travis Youngblood was a U.S. Navy medic who died from wounds suffered from an IED during combat operations with the U.S. Marines in Hit, Iraq.
She visited her husband in May 2009 during the Memorial Day weekend.
After touching his gravestone, she stood up, gently kissed the top of the marble and said, “See you tomorrow, honey.” And then left….
“Gold Star” mother Paula Davis thought she was an “Army of One” when raising her only child, Justin, alone for eighteen years before turning him over to the U.S. Army. He had just graduated from high school weeks earlier and he had no fear of serving in wartime.
Justin was spirited and was strong. “A million dollar smile,” Mrs. Davis proudly boasts. Proof is seen in a large photograph moments after entering her home in Maryland. “He wanted to be in Kung Fu movies…the next Jet Li.”
And he loved the idea of joining the Army so much that the night before he reported for his first day of duty he made his mother stay up with him and watch two war movies, “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Black Hawk Down.”
Hours later they drove to the U.S. Army recruiting office. Mrs. Davis was now alone for the first time in nearly two decades. “I drove a few blocks down the street, stopped, and just cried….”
One year later she cried again…only harder. Justin was finally coming home from the war and “did she want him buried at Arlington?”
The entire time he was gone she thought “Afghanistan was a safer war,” she said.
For two months after his funeral Mrs. Davis slept inside his bed; “I still go and sit on his bed for comfort.”
Justin’s room is exactly as it was the day he joined the army in 2005. The four cardboard boxes containing his belongings from Afghanistan are still unopened on the floor of his room.
Justin’s first pair of baby’s shoes hangs from the door knob to the room.
Mrs. Davis drives to ‘Section 60’ after church every Sunday, “rain or shine,” to honor him. “If I don’t, who will?” “This is our Vietnam Memorial,” she said.
She then explained, “The burden of two wars falls on a select few….Most Americans are not asked to sacrifice. Our leaders should find every means possible to not go to war…”
Justin died shortly after turning 19 years-old. “He would have been a great father…..now I’ll miss that,” said Mrs. Davis.
Mrs. Davis and “Gold Star” mother Xiomara Mena (Anderson) are best friends now after meeting in ‘Section 60.’ Their boys are buried within steps of each other. Mrs. Anderson is also a “Blue Star” mother; she has two other children serving in combat overseas.
Mrs. Anderson patiently uses her household scissors to trim the grass around the gravestone of her son, Andy D. Anderson, who died in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in June 2006. “Arlington takes good care of my son…” she said, “but I like to keep him neat.”
Mrs. Anderson’s motherly instinct is still alive after three years since Andy’s funeral. Watching her carefully clip the grass around her son’s grave seems as natural as watching a loving mother making up her son’s bed in the morning.
“Gold Star” mother Vicki Zeigler deserves her own medal for the unwavering devotion to her son, Kenneth E. Zeigler II; driving EVERY weekend to visit ‘Arlington’ from Dillsburg, Pennsylvania. Kenneth died while serving with the U.S. Army in Baghdad, Iraq, in May 2005.
Mrs. Zeigler arrives early and unfolds a beach chair before spending the entire day serenely staring at the name of her baby boy while recalling the day he was born after “6 hours of hard labor” in 1983.
“He was a momma’s boy until the end,” she proudly said. As he was lying on the ground and fighting for his life while wounded his sergeant leaned down and whispered “we’ll take care of mom,” she explained. Kenneth then relaxed and slipped away after knowing his mom was in strong hands.
Mrs. Zeigler drives in a car devoted to the memory of her hero.
All three women expressed concerns for American’s who have loved ones in harm’s way and may be forced in the future to sit in the “green chairs” for family members during an ‘Arlington’ funeral.
Theodore Uland Church….Garrett T. Lawton….Darryl Demetrial Booker…. Deforest Lee Talbert…
Photojournalists assigned to military funerals are tough and rarely flinch. Cameras make great wallsto hide behind when emotions become powerful. Tears have always dripped down from behind mine during an “Arlington’ funeral.
Rebecca Baldeosingh and her daughters attended the funeral of her husband and their father, Juan C. Baldeosingh, who was killed last June in Iraq. He was buried in Section 60 with honor on August 4, 2009.
The most horrifying funeral I’ve attended was by accident at the end of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 along the Iraq-Kuwait border. It still haunts me today.
Photojournalist Mike Nelson and I stumbled upon an eerie scene in the desert that belonged in “The Twilight Zone.”
Over 100 Iraqi soldiers were fleeing north from Kuwait at the end of the war when allied warplanes launched rockets stopping the head of the snaking convoy.
The attacking aircraft then dropped exploding gas bombs high over the remaining vehicles in the convoy. The explosion created huge clouds of fire above the troops and burned all the breathable oxygen without scorching anyone below.
In short, the explosion sucked the air out of the lungs of every man.
Each corpse looked alive as we approached and they were still holding their rifles while seated inside their vehicles.
The memory of that sharp, biting, warm stench of death remains with my lungs today.
The British army arrived and carved a mass grave using bulldozers. Soldiers respectfully dragged the scores of dead bodies across the warm sands to their final grave before prayers were offered over the fallen.
Nearly 19 years have passed since that day and Iraqi mothers are still wondering where their sons are buried.
The Americans stationed inside the secure air base in Da Nang during the Vietnam War were easy targets for the Viet Cong who were hiding in the surrounding mountains east of the base. The VC used seven-foot long, deadly 122mm Russian-made rockets launched inaccurately from bamboo bipods to terrorize the troops below.
Chalk was used to tally “the count” on a wall inside the perimeter and over 650 rockets were launched from those mountains between September 1972 and September 1973.
A lethal game of Russian roulette played against the grim reaper during the year of living dangerously.
“If you heard a rocket explode or heard the siren, you had one goal…grab your helmet, flak jacket and haul ass to the nearest sandbag bunker scattered around our compound,” said a friend of mine, a U.S. Air Force security policeman who survived that year.
During one night’s rocket attack that same airman raced into the thick, wet muck in the “binjo ditch” that was used to drain latrine water away from the barracks. Both of his feet slide in different directions when they hit the sewage and then stopped abruptly. His forward motion continued and both ankles were brutally twisted as he fell hard. The memories of the “pop and a blinding pain” around his ankles are linked with the intense fear of dying during that rocket attack.
The injuries were so severe that at “20 years old, I would never be able to run,jump or even walk normally for the rest of my life,” he writes in an email. “They would’ve healed if they both broke,” said the doctors.
September 1973 arrived and he hobbled aboard the “freedom bird” leaving Da Nang. Vietnam and the war were now in his rear view mirror…or so he thought.
In the years before he arrived “in country” the air base had supported “Operation Ranch Hand;” an Air Force program involving the spraying of millions of gallons of a harsh herbicide “Agent Orange” over the jungles of Southeast Asia. The deadly chemical was used to kill the thick vegetation hiding the enemy. “Agent Orange” was sprayed over the rivers, fields, and jungles of Vietnam altering the normal life cycle of all living plants, animals and humans on the ground.
Air Force Security Policemen patrolled the areas on the base where splashed “Agent Orange” had dripped onto the ground leaving a contaminated residue. My friend spent a year kicking up and inhaling that dust.
36 years have passed since he left Vietnam and he will never be able to enjoy the simple, pleasurable, act of walking a dog.
The permanent damage to his ankles combined with the exposure to “Agent Orange” leaves him 100% disabled.
His days begin, then end, sitting in a motorized wheelchair. It’s a painful “hell;” his crippling souvenir for bravely volunteering for a year in Vietnam.
“There were dark, dark periods of unmentionable anger, fear, even desperation a time or two,” he said. He admits he is now “a controlled drug addict” relying on powerful prescription drugs to ease the sharp pain he wakes up to each morning.
He was my hero when we were Air Force Security Policemen stationed together on an island in the Mediterranean and he is my super-hero today. (I’ve omitted his name at his request).
Jeremy A. Chandler….Deveran L. Owen….Adam Leigh Cann…. Steven R. Koch….
Combat veterans find the search for “closure” a lonely battle after losing a friend in war.
Veterans’ motorcycle club “Patriots Pride” rode from Charleston, West Virginia, to visit the grave of soldier DeForest Lee Talbert who is buried at ‘Arlington.’ Each rider served in combat with Talbert before he died in July 2004.
Talbot’s son, Deontae James Hamlet, stands proudly with the men who knew his father.
Susan Blankenship traveled to ‘Arlington’ to “rub” the gravestone of Steven A. Davis for her son who served with Davis in Iraq. Mrs. Blankenship’s son could not make the trip to ‘Arlington’ but he wanted the rubbing for “closure.” Davis died in 2007.
“Gold Star” mother Carolann Barbieri sits alone as she writes a private letter to her son on July 4, 2009. Barbieri died in 2006 while in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Visitors to ‘Section 60’ leave small stones or personalized mementos on top of a grave to honor those buried below. Some are unique but most follow the simple Jewish tradition of leaving a single pebble per visit on the gravestone of a loved one.
Veteran’s Day is celebrated on November 11th in the United States.
It’s a national day of honor recognizing veterans for “throwing their hat in the ring” to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.
Look for a veteran in November and buy him a cup of coffee, or a sandwich, and give thanks for their service.
Travel to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. and volunteer to help the “wounded warriors” who are fighting for their dignity with less than whole bodies.
U.S. Army Sgt. Joey Bozik (L) talks to Vietnam veteran Army Col. Oliver Mahatha Sr. (R) in the physical therapy room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005. Bozik lost two legs and one arm from an explosion in Iraq.
Wounded Army Sgt. John Daniel Shannon wears the Purple Heart with pride on his eye patch while testifying before Congress in 2007.
Or, walk the extra mile to ‘Section 60’ inside ‘Arlington’ and place a small pebble on the grave of an American hero….It’s their day.
U.S. Marine SSgt. William C. Rapier, of Quantico, Virginia, shows his son around Arlington National Cemetery in 2006.
Greg Lamonte Sutton…. Jamie D. Wilson…. Charles E. Wyckoff… Philip Andrew Johnson Jr…..