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At Arlington, 'we all share in the same loss'

Section 60, where more than a tenth of the casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rest, is home to service members who died recently, and young. The mourners have become like family.

November 11, 2010|By Faye Fiore, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Arlington, Va. — It's a perfect autumn Sunday and Chad Weikel is sitting outdoors, having a beer with his big brother, Ian. Chad's beer is resting in the cup holder of his folding chair. Ian's is propped up against his headstone.

Army Capt. Ian Weikel, 31, was killed in action in Iraq on April 18, 2006, so this is how they visit now.

Three rows back, Nicki Bunting's 3-year-old, Connor, is building a campfire for his dad. Or maybe it's an ant farm. He hasn't decided. He was 1 when his father, Army Capt. Brian "Bubba" Bunting, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on Feb. 24, 2009. They drive from Maryland to "visit Daddy" every Sunday — Connor, his mom and his little brother, Cooper, an R-and-R baby conceived a month before his father died.

You don't see scenes like this at very many gravesites in America; in fact, you don't see them anywhere else but here at Arlington National Cemetery, the hallowed burial ground for two U.S. presidents, 12 Supreme Court justices and veterans of every war since the Revolution.

This is Section 60, where more than a tenth of the casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rest: 648 at last count, more than in any other single place. These service members died recently, and they died young. The grief here is raw — parents who outlived their children, spouses still raising their babies, friends who thought death was an older generation's burden.

Their sorrow has a tragically youthful spin that defies the rigid orderliness of a military burial ground better known for riderless horses and gun salutes. Section 60 is strewn with bits of unfinished life: carved pumpkins, cigars, a birthday cake, an "It's a Boy" balloon, Mardi Gras beads, a note — "We love you son. Always will." — a Darth Vader doll, a can of Bud Lite.

"We all share in the same loss," Nicki Bunting says. "In any other section or cemetery, I don't know each person's story. It could have been cancer or a car accident. But in Section 60, we've all had the same knock at the door."

On Thursday, the nation pauses to honor all who served and remember the fallen. Visitors will flock to Washington's monuments erected for nearly every American war. But there is no memorial for the two wars still raging. Section 60, on 18 acres of grass across the Potomac River from the nation's capital, has come to serve that purpose.

Individually wrapped roses appeared one day on 100 graves. A man in a kilt with bagpipes showed up and played Taps. Busloads of schoolchildren come to visit the graves of service members whose stories they've looked up. Day hikers walk the rows and do the math: He was 19; she was 22; he was 31.

Sometimes private grief and public curiosity collide. Tourists snap pictures without permission; they say the wrong thing. Mostly, though, it works out. On weekends and holidays like this one, Section 60 has the feel of a big backyard, where families gather to heal and condolatory neighbors pass by.

"It's not really a sad place; it's a peaceful place," Nicki says, putting the colored rocks that decorate her husband's headstone in her jacket pocket before the baby swallows one. "Of course you see people crying. We cry sometimes. But then you see somebody you know, and you start talking. Or you meet someone new. That's what's great about Section 60."

Through nine years of war, a community took root here; people with something terrible in common forged a kind of fellowship.

Nicki arrived at Bubba's grave Sunday afternoon to find purple gerbera daisies. Must have been Paula Davis. She likes to leave artificial flowers when it's too cold for real ones. Her son, Pfc. Justin Davis, a few rows up, was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire on June 25, 2006.

Two headstones away from Bubba's grave is Army Spc. Jessica Sarandrea, killed March 3, 2009, in Mosul, Iraq. She was 22. Her parents came from Florida to visit on Memorial Day. They got to talking and Nicki offered to watch over Jessica's grave.

She places a colored stone on the marker, a popular tradition in Section 60. It stems from the Jewish custom of putting pebbles on a headstone to show a visitor came to honor the dead. But like everything else here, the traditional makes way for the extraordinary and the markers are dotted with red hearts, white ghosts and hand-painted rocks. Purple stones are the Bunting family's calling card; Bubba was a Ravens fan.

Section 60 opened 30 years ago. There were already close to 8,000 graves of veterans and their families when the bodies started coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. The funerals average five a month now, "depending on the operational tempo over there," Arlington spokeswoman Kaitlin Horst said.

Bubba's grave is No. 8,758. The day he was buried, his was third from the end of the last row. Since then, six more rows have gone in.

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