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It's a sad and honorable place

October 13, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

In "Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery," the stepfather of a U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan remembers the moments just before his wife got the dreadful notification.

She had heard on the news that 16 troops had been killed and, her husband says, she knew "that meant there will be 16 mothers who will be crying tonight. She didn't know she would be one of them."

There is a lot of crying in "Section 60," an intimate and achingly personal look at that section of the famed cemetery where U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.

The government guards the privacy of families with loved ones buried at Arlington, and news coverage at the cemetery is limited. But filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill were granted seemingly unlimited access both to the site and the grieving families.

The result is a powerful documentary about service and sacrifice and the American families that bear both with dignity and strength. There is no narrator, no script; the emotions are raw and unrehearsed.

"He was my whole world," says the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. "I know he's in a better place. They can't shoot at him now."

A wife talks of her husband's death: "Our love didn't die." Says another widow, "Next week would have been our 20th wedding anniversary. It's just tough all around."

A soldier meets the family of a buddy killed in combat and tries to comfort them. "Every single time I dream he's there," he says. A mother says of her dead son, "I would take his place in a heartbeat."

Families grieve in similar yet individual ways. Some mothers bring their children to show them Daddy's grave. One widow moved close to Arlington, Va., to make the trips easier. Families come on holidays and anniversaries; they bond with others who have suffered the same loss. They pray and weep. They bring flowers and sometimes food. They talk to the headstones.

Without trying, "Section 60" proves anew that the battlefield may be the only truly integrated American workplace. The families are white, black, Latino, Asian; a couple who emigrated from Pakistan 25 years ago to enjoy the freedom of America earlier mourn their son and pray.

This is the third in a trilogy of Iraq-related documentaries by Alpert and O'Neill for HBO. The first was "Baghdad ER," about the frantic pace of a military hospital, the second was "Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq," about soldiers, Marines and sailors who survived their wounds and felt reborn.

"Section 60" is a perfect coda to the earlier efforts. Like the others, it is resolutely nonpolitical, neither condemning nor supporting American foreign policy, merely showing the cost of war and the people who pay it.

The closest any of the family members comes to a political statement is the widow of an Army staff sergeant who admits to being upset by people who feel the Iraq war was a mistake: "It's hard to hear things they say when you feel your husband died for his country."

The sister of a fallen soldier says that Section 60 has been called "the saddest acre in America."

She adds her own view: "I would say, too, it is one of the most honorable places in America."

The filmmakers have done the cemetery and the families forever linked to it proud.



'Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery'

Where: HBO

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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