An Eternal Bond

With Memorial Day a week away this is a fitting article for this time of year.

An eternal bond
Arlington walk reinforces kinship with those who made ultimate sacrifice
By Maj.Steve Kroeker -
Posted : May 21, 2007

The moist air envelopes me as I head for the Tombs of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. I walk quickly to escape the hustle and bustle of the visitor center. Gradually I slow, taking in the colors of the cherry blossoms on trees I pass. The walk to the tomb is longer than I thought, going around several curves and steadily climbing upward. I arrive just as the changing of the guard is about to take place. I have seen this ritual before, so I know what to expect, but I am not prepared for the large number of people already on the steps overlooking the tomb. A large group of high school-age kids approaches, obviously part of a tour group and not being very quiet considering the hallowed ground on which they tread.

The ceremony is the picture of synchronized perfection. It is simple yet powerful to watch, especially when you consider it goes on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Soon it is over, and I escape the crowds, stopping briefly to look at the memorial to the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia astronauts, as well as the veterans of the Desert One hostage rescue attempt in Iran.

I gaze about as I walk, reading the headstones. On a steep slope overlooking the road, they appear to be very close together, and what appear to be flowers are growing up between them. I read the dates inscribed in the granite and realize I am looking at graves from the late 1800s. I spot the marker for a Medal of Honor recipient.

I take in the quiet beauty of the place and feeling the stillness of the area. Porter Drive is far removed from the more popular destinations on the northern portion of the cemetery. I enjoy the quiet and think to myself that I need more quiet time in my life. I continue downward, crossing Eisenhower Drive. Here, the area opens up and there are fewer trees, leaving open fields of stone to my left.

As I approach, I hear a loud noise and see a firing party assembled. I faintly hear the sound of taps being played, the sound fading in and out with the wind. I stop and salute, holding it till the song ends.

I am now in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. According to the woman at the information desk, this is where the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. I scan the monuments and see dates from World War II and Korea. I walk toward the empty end of the field. I see an area of bare dirt, where the sod has been removed.

I look at dates on the headstones and suddenly find what I am seeking. The dates inscribed go back only a year or two. I keep searching, looking for dates during which I was in Iraq.

I work my way toward the front line of markers. Here, the ground is bare, the sod not yet covering the ground in front of a few headstones. Next to them, the sod is fresh and the ground wet in an effort to get the sod to take root. I look at the dates. They died only a few weeks ago. Next to them are some graves with small temporary markers. I read the text. It gives the name of the fallen, the date of death and the date of interment. I notice that often there are fewer than 10 days between the date of death and the date of burial at Arlington. I marvel at how fast that is, considering the death likely happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the body had to be flown nearly 10,000 miles to its final resting place.

Many are lower enlisted, likely under the age of 25. Some are only E-2s. They may have been in the service less than six months when they made the ultimate sacrifice. A number of the graves have flowers, pictures, balloons or other mementos on them. Many of these markers have clear, colored resin stones atop them, like the kind used in glass vases to hold up flowers or the like. I wonder about the meaning of them, as they are atop nearly all of the markers in this area.

I find markers that bear dates of death that coincide with my time in Iraq. I feel closeness to these memorials. More than 70 service members were killed during my two months in Iraq. By some accounts, this is a relatively low death toll, but every death I heard about reminded me about the precariousness of life in a combat zone.

Several graves draw me to them. One bears pictures of smiling men in desert uniforms. I can tell from the pictures that they appear to be part of a special operations unit. The rank listed on the headstone says CW3 — likely a team leader or assistant team leader for a Special Forces A team. Two other markers bear the inscription “Night Stalkers Don’t Quit,” the motto of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Having worked with them in Iraq as well as having just read a book about them, I feel a kinship to these daring pilots. One was lost in Iraq, the other in Afghanistan.

As I move among the headstones, I notice an older couple, probably in their 50s, standing in front of one of the graves. I wonder if they are here to visit a lost son. I keep my distance out of respect for their privacy and loss. As I make my way back to my car, I try to make sense of the swirling emotions I am feeling.

On one hand, I am deeply proud of my military service and feel a desire to go back to the battleground to serve alongside other warriors. On the other hand, I am saddened by the loss of so many fine young men over the ages. It is not the sadness of one who has experienced war only in a movie theater or a 30-second clip on TV, or engaged in a debate about whether or not it was the right thing to do. Rather, it is the more simple, and at the same time, more complex, emotion of a war veteran for whom the whole experience is so personal.

We who choose to take up the profession of arms for one enlistment or for an entire career, all share a common bond. Our motivations for joining, as well as our opinions regarding the current conflict, are many and varied. But we all accept the fact that when duty calls, we will answer that call.

The hardships of basic training begin the bonding process. The anxiety of packing your life into a duffel bag, saying goodbye to everyone and everything you know and love, and flying off to a foreign land filled with unknown risks strengthens that bond. Spending endless days together in austere conditions with the constant risk of injury or death tempers that bond until it is unbreakable, even in death.

It is the bond that says, “We are veterans.” We are the warrior class. We have made a choice to put service to others before service to ourselves, even if it means risking and possibly losing our lives to further our cause. It is a deep sense of purpose within ourselves that guides us and motivates us every day.

I struggle to make sense of all of these feelings and emotions as I approach the visitor center and the parking area beyond. A tour shuttle full of visitors is departing on its trip through the cemetery as I approach. There is the usual chatter of voices as people talk among themselves and the tour guide’s voice booms above them through the speaker. I try to leave this area quickly, feeling assaulted by all of the commotion and having the urge to shout at them, “Be quiet! This is sacred ground! You are among fallen heroes!”

I depart the cemetery, back into the hustle and bustle surrounding it. I wonder how many of those I see in the cars outside the cemetery ever stop to reflect on the monumental sacrifices made by those lying within.

The writer is a major and an Army reservist assigned to the National-Geospatial Intelligence Agency. He served with a joint special operations task force in Baghdad in the winter of 2003-2004. He lives with his family in Peyton, Colo.

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