Section 60: Visiting Hallowed Ground

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Bingham C. Jamison

Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60, Memorial Day Weekend, 2013.

“So many graves.”

That was my daughter, 4, aghast at the site of seemingly unending rows of greying marble headstones, arranged in perfect symmetry along the rolling Virginia fields.

“Why did all these people have to die, Daddy?”

This wasn’t my first time visiting old friends at a military cemetery, and yet the shock of its haunting grandeur — a scene as beautiful as it is disturbing — never seems to fade.

Lost deep in thought from the passenger seat, I was attempting to mentally rectify how a place of such striking beauty could be home to so much inherent horror — my wife, forced in my silence to field the innocent inquiry from our daughter, attempted to delicately answer the existential question about war and fighting, death and God.

I’m not sure I could have offered a response at all.

As our intentionally circuitous route through Arlington National Cemetery wound us past the Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s historic home on the hill, I pondered his timeless utterance during the slaughter of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.

I wondered if those who had never borne the weight of war could ever truly understand his sentiment.

As if on cue, Trace Adkins’ Arlington started playing on the radio.

We turned off of Eisenhower Drive and parked along the curb under the shade of a tree at our destination, a bustling section of the cemetery home to many of our fallen service members from Iraq and Afghanistan. Located near the eastern edge of the hallowed grounds, Section 60 was depressingly active — veterans, active-duty service members, families, and patriotic civilians alike roamed the grounds to pay their respects to those lost in the last decade-plus of war.

My wife and I were wholly unprepared for the varied scenes we witnessed during our stroll around the grounds: a mother and father, each proudly wearing USMC hats and shirts, sitting silently in lawn chairs at their son’s grave, staring into the distance; a father sitting alone, his arm propped up against the top of a gravestone, talking softly to his son and privately weeping.

I watched as a Marine corporal, wearing his stunning Dress Blues (adorned with rows of colorful awards on his chest that silently told me the general story of his combat deployments to Iraq), approached the corner of Section 60, stopped to adjust his uniform, took a deep breath, and then confidently strode toward a comrade’s gravesite; moments later, the Marine collapsed and began to sob.  Two women, sitting close-by at their own loved-one’s grave, rushed to embrace the total stranger, holding his hands as he wept on their shoulders.

A half-dozen enlisted Marines, wearing olive-green and tan Service Charlies (several of which sported distinctive Purple Heart ribbons of their own), congregated around a fellow Marine’s grave in quiet reflection. Perhaps they were wounded trying to save their friend — I’ll never know, as I didn’t have the courage to ask. In fact, I didn’t have the heart to speak with any of these visitors, afraid that I would somehow ruin their visit, that I would infringe on the limited and sacred time they got to spend with their loved ones.

Instead, with my daughter’s hand tightly clenched in mine, I solemnly nodded in their direction and proudly listened as my daughter said, “Thank you for your service.”

The mother and wife of a fallen Marine, along with his two young children, sat Indian-style on a red blanket at the base of his grave, enjoying a peaceful picnic while quietly telling stories and laughing in an apparent celebration of his life. The youngest child, who appeared to be just younger than my 2-year-old, was curled up at the edge of the blanket, taking a nap with his Daddy.

For my wife, who’s usually the picture of composure and bearing, the family picnic was just too much to bear.

She burst out in tears, walking away from our double-stroller so as to shield the other family from the rawness of her emotions. Tears strolled down my cheeks as I shared her thoughts: that could have been my family, sitting by my grave having a picnic, my son asleep on the blanket. Pangs of guilt reignited the age-old question of why some of us survived, while others did not.

It all seemed so unfair.

At my daughter’s request, we took one more stroll around Section 60 — she wanted to say goodbye one last time to some of our country’s finest. Unbeknownst to me, she had brought a bag of special rocks for the occasion, so as we stopped to pay our respects at each grave, she gently placed a special rock atop the headstones. When she ran out of rocks, she politely asked me if she could give each headstone a gentle pat, and my wife and I stepped back in awe as we watched her slowly walk from grave to grave to pay her respects in her own personal way. My sunglasses couldn’t contain the tears that streamed down my face.

As we slowly meandered back to our car in silence, a muscular young man approached us with a clenched jaw, his look a mix of sorrow and determination. I offered a grateful nod as we walked past, and the warrior acknowledged my nonverbal hello by returning a somber nod and slightly raising his left arm to wave at me and my family. The mechanical claw at the end of his prosthetic glimmered in the sunlight.

I couldn’t help but think about the sign that hangs in the entrance of VA hospitals nationwide: “The price of freedom is visible here.”

Having seen both of their parents, and countless others, crying at the cemetery, I wondered whether the visit was just too much for our young children to handle. I squeezed my wife’s hand as we exited through the main gate onto the scenic Memorial Bridge, and as if sensing my waning confidence, my daughter asked quietly from her seat in the back:  “Daddy, will you bring me back here again next year?”

Check out LIFE photographer George Silk’s classic 1960s photographs of Arlington here.