For mothers of war dead, Arlington National Cemetery becomes a weekly ritual

November 10, 2013

The afternoon couldn’t be more perfect at Arlington National Cemetery. The sky is blue; the leaves have just begun to change color. Paula Davis sits in a lawn chair by her son’s grave.

“I think a dog would be great for you,” says Gina Barnhurst, whose son is buried in the same row. “A little dog.” The thought had popped into Barnhurst’s head a few nights earlier when she was talking to her daughter. “I was just saying, ‘Paula needs a dog,’ ” she says. “I don’t want to encourage it too much because it is a lot of work.”

The longest stretch of war in American history recedes, and this is what remains. Davis, 58, has been visiting her son’s grave here in Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60 almost every Sunday afternoon since 2006. In the first years after her son was killed in Afghanistan, she raced to the cemetery to see his name etched into the headstone and sit among parents and spouses experiencing the same all-consuming sadness. Wives lay facedown in the new grass covering their husbands’ graves. Children worked nearby on crayon drawings.

“I just couldn’t wait to get here,” Davis says. “I had to see Justin’s name.”

Today Section 60, where the dead from the Iraq and Afghan wars are buried, is a different place. There is still grief here. But Davis and her friends laugh more than they cry when they visit the cemetery. Section 60 is a place where Davis can talk about her son without worrying that she is making her family or co-workers sad or uncomfortable. It’s a place where she can spend time with women, like Barnhurst, who have become her closest friends. They mark birthdays and anniversaries together in the cemetery. They talk about dogs, home renovations, exercising more.

Mothers Paula Davis, Gina Barnhurst and Xiomara Mena Anderson come together each week at Arlington Cemetery to visit the graves of their sons, who perished in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (Michel DuCille and Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Twelve years of war: These days Davis and her friends think of themselves as neighbors.

“I am over by the holly tree,” Barnhurst says when she meets newcomers to Section 60.

“I’m in the same row,” Davis says.

“She’s June,” says Barnhurst, “and I am October.”

“We’re the little group,” Davis says of her friends. “That’s what we call each other.”

‘Meet my son’

“Maybe they are stuck in traffic?” Davis says, checking her watch. She’s sitting in the cemetery with Xiomara Mena Anderson, whose son Andy is buried four spots from Justin. Anderson is a June, too.

They are waiting for two soldiers whom they first met in 2010. Anderson spots a tall, lean woman with black hair pulled back in a ponytail. “That’s her,” she says. “That’s the girl.”

Three years earlier, Davis had noticed the woman standing in front of a headstone and crying. She had come to the cemetery that day with a fellow soldier. Both women were drill sergeants training new recruits for Iraq and Afghanistan; neither knew anyone buried in Section 60.

“Come over here and meet my son Justin,” Davis said.

Every year since, the two soldiers have visited the cemetery on the day before the Army Ten-Miler road race to see Davis and Anderson.

Davis grabs her son’s camouflage poncho liner from Afghanistan from her car and spreads it on the ground so the two soldiers will have a place to sit.

Davis didn’t know much about the military when her 18-year-old son enlisted. During his school years, she decorated his room with signs meant to inspire him: “Justin Davis: neurosurgeon,” read one. “Justin Davis: history teacher,” said another. After his starring role in his middle school’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” she added, “Justin Davis: actor.” The military was never something she wanted for her only son, especially not during a time of war.

Listening to the two soldiers, she is seeing her son still alive and seven years older. One of the women jokes about giving annual physical fitness tests to out-of-shape superior officers. “Uh sir, that push-up is not going to make it,” she deadpans.

The other soldier, assigned to a Special Operations support battalion, describes her unit’s last road march. Only three soldiers in her 100-soldier unit finished without getting lost. “We are Special Operations, so I guess we have a lot of special people,” she cracks.

Davis is the perfect audience, howling with laughter at their stories. “You girls are tough!” she says.

The soldiers pose for pictures by Justin’s and Andy’s grave markers and, as they do on every visit, encourage Davis and Anderson to walk the Army Ten-Miler next year. “You’ve inspired me,” Davis says. “I am starting my training tomorrow.” She also says this every year.

Davis had been hoping to take the soldiers to lunch and hear more about their lives, their husbands and their children. Maybe she would share a story about Justin. But the soldiers, who have to pick up their race packets, don’t have time. There’s a round of hugs, and they leave.

The cemetery is quiet again, just Davis and Anderson under a slate gray sky. It’s fall now, the beginning of the season when the cemetery allows artificial flower arrangements, so Davis and Anderson sit in their folding chairs and work quietly on their displays.

“They almost finished my basement,” Anderson says of her home renovation. “There’s so much dust everywhere.”

“Does it look nice?” Davis asks.

“Real nice,” Anderson says.

The two women pack up their belongings and walk down the row of grave markers toward their cars. They pause by the headstone belonging to Barnhurst’s son, Eric Herzberg. The anniversary of his death is three days away, and Barnhurst is planning on spending the entire day in the cemetery. Davis places a small coin on top of the marker to let her friend know that she is thinking of her. On the day of the anniversary, she will send an e-mail. “We have learned how to live without our sons,” she will write.

Now, she and Anderson hug goodbye next to their cars.

“What are you doing this afternoon?” asks Anderson, whose voice carries the lilt of her native Panama.

“Grocery shopping, cleaning, the usual,” Davis says. She climbs into her car and comes up with one more idea: She’ll buy some cardboard and make a poster for the two soldiers that she can hold up at the finish line of the next day’s race.

‘It’s hard for them to understand’

Davis knows that her family and many of her friends think that she would be better off not visiting the cemetery every week.

“It doesn’t make me sadder,” she says of her weekly visits. “On anniversaries and birthdays it can be sad. But this isn’t a sad place for me. It’s hard for them to understand.”

After seven years, Davis has developed rituals to pass the time in Section 60. She arrives with her son’s black high school backpack with his initials “J.D.” printed in white marker on the straps. Inside, there are scissors to trim the grass around his grave. “Xiomara got us started on that,” she says. There are rubber wristbands bearing Justin’s name, a Bible, candles, Christmas decorations and a worn folder with articles on grief that she no longer reads.

A few weeks earlier, cemetery officials stripped off the photographs that Davis and dozens of others had taped to the headstones. In a compromise with upset families, they agreed to allow small photos set on the ground next to the markers. Davis has brought a laminated picture of her son on a Popsicle stick. She plants it in the ground.

She also looks after the graves of four other soldiers who were killed in the Korengal Valley, a violent and jagged sliver of land near the Pakistani border where Justin died. On this Sunday, she marks the birthday of Spec. Robert Drawl Jr. by leaving a spray of orange mums and snapping a picture for the Korengal Valley Survivors Association Facebook page. “I know he’s from Virginia,” she says of Drawl. “But I don’t know the story with his family. I’ve never seen them here.”

This year, for the first time since her son’s death, Davis didn’t have a Memorial Day picnic in his honor. “Time just got away from me,” she says. But she can’t conceive of a time when she won’t visit the cemetery weekly with Barnhurst and Anderson. “Maybe when I am in my 80s I’ll come in a walker,” she says. “I can’t imagine us not being in contact here.”

Davis sits on a folding chair by her son’s headstone with her arms crossed and a Bible on her lap. A motorcycle hums in the distance. Cellophane crackles as Barnhurst unwraps flowers for her son’s marker. It is a little past 7 p.m. when they start to pack up their chairs and head home. “I am surprised the white little car hasn’t come through,” Davis says. She rubs her hand in circles over her son’s name. Barnhurst kisses the top of Eric’s headstone.

Just then the white car with the words “Public Safety” on the side rolls slowly past Section 60. “Hurry up, the gates are shutting,” calls a voice from the front seat.

“They are a little late today,” says Davis, who is in no hurry at all.

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