The three commanders have never met the soldier in the casket, but they know of him: Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr., who led the same battalion that they commanded in Afghanistan through one of the most disastrous battles of the Korean War and whose war ended in an unmarked grave near North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir.
They had shared the story of Faith’s brave and hopeless fight with their own men as they prepared to go to Afghanistan. He was their ideal, more myth than man. Sixty-two years ago, he had been them. So when the Pentagon announced this month that it had identified Faith’s remains and that he would receive a hero’s burial at Arlington, the three quickly decided to attend.
The pace slows as the funeral cortege climbs a steep hill. Col. Chris Cavoli looks to his left, down the long, grassy rise toward Section 60, where the Afghanistan and Iraq war dead are buried.
“Do you have any here?” he asks. Cavoli lost 20 soldiers during the battalion’s first Afghanistan tour in 2006 and 2007.
“All mine went home,” says Lt. Col. Kenny Mintz, who suffered 14 dead in 2011.
“Same with me,” says Col. Mark O’Donnell, who lost six in 2009.
Five of the 20 soldiers killed under Cavoli’s command are buried at Arlington, including one who was killed by mortar fire in 2006. On Sundays, when Cavoli stops by the cemetery, he almost always sees that soldier’s mother, sitting on a blanket near the headstone and sharing a picnic lunch with her deceased son.
A few rows away is the grave of another. “My boys can pick out Joe Fenty’s gravestone faster than I can,” Cavoli says. Fenty had been his best friend. When his body was loaded onto a Chinook helicopter, Cavoli tucked a rosary into the plastic body bag.
The funeral procession stops near a small, gnarled tree. Thirty-nine members of Faith’s family cluster around the grave site as the Old Guard soldiers slide the casket off the caisson and carry it toward the grave. It is strange kind of funeral. There are no tears, no grieving widows and no anguished children. There are no family members still alive who really knew Faith well.
The battle at Chosin Reservoir was a disaster for U.S. Army troops and Marines. Temperatures plunged to 35 degrees below zero. Faith’s men were poorly trained, ill-equipped and largely abandoned by their higher headquarters. Icicles of blood hung off the bodies of dead and wounded American soldiers. For four days, they fought to stay alive. On the fifth day, Faith led his men on a desperate retreat. Enemy troops pounded their fleeing column. U.S. warplanes mistakenly hit them with napalm. Faith charged a Chinese roadblock armed with only a pistol and hand grenades. Shrapnel tore through his chest. He died alone.
War at its least poetic — surely that’s what that day was. Now, on this day, soldiers wear neatly pressed wool uniforms with brass buttons that sparkle in the sun. The sound of a lone Army bugler playing taps vibrates through the air. An Army chaplain says a prayer before Faith’s remains are lowered into the ground. A two-star general kneels at the feet of Faith’s daughter, who was 4 when her father died, and hands her an American flag from his casket, tightly folded into a triangle. Barbara Broyles is a grandmother now, in a black dress and pearls, and she smiles and poses for pictures with the three commanders. Cavoli isn’t sure what to say to her.
“God bless,” he says, “and congratulations.”
There is a moment of awkward silence before she thanks him.
A few Korean War veterans mix with the mourners at the grave site. One old soldier sits on a white marble headstone. Another clutches a typed account of the Chosin battle that he wants to share with Faith’s family.
“Did you ever serve with Colonel Faith?” O’Donnell asks another of them, hoping for some special, on-the-ground insight into the legend of Don Faith.
“Fortunately, I got there about three months after he was killed,” the old man says. “They got their asses kicked.”
The burial is over, and the mourners climb into Army vans that have assembled to carry them out of the cemetery. The three commanders decide to walk. A few hundred yards from Faith’s grave, they pause to talk to Col. James Gray, an 88-year-old veteran of Chosin.
Gray’s uniform hangs loose on his bony frame. A spider’s web of broken red veins spreads across his pale cheeks. Sweat drips from his white hair. “I was with Task Force Faith,” he says. “I served with him for the duration.” His deep, insistent baritone booms through the now-empty cemetery.
“It was five days of hell,” he says.
The three commanders keep walking until Gray is a small dot in the distance.
Five days of hell.
They got their asses kicked.
A gentle breeze.
A warming sun.
As the three commanders shake hands and say goodbye, they wonder: How long will it be before their war becomes something that is celebrated by strangers in a cemetery on a beautiful spring day?