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For some war dead, Arlington’s gates are closed

By Marc Chretien,

On Memorial Day weekend two years ago, I was in Iraq and busy throwing myself a goodbye party. On hand were my closest friends in Baghdad. Most, like me, were serving with the State Department, though some were with USAID or other federal agencies. A number of us had worked many years in Iraq, and we always got together to send a friend home.

We were all civilians and had volunteered for this service. It wasn’t glamorous. In the early years in Iraq, we were awarded a “Certificate of Appreciation” from the State Department at the end of our tours. It was a photocopied piece of paper, thanking us for our service. It was presented in a nice frame. Immediately after the ceremony we had to peel the paper certificate out of the frame, because there was only one frame to use. By 2009 we finally had enough frames, but by then most of us did not request one.

One of my favorite colleagues, Terry Barnich, a fellow senior staffer at the embassy in Baghdad, was at the party that day. He had left a promising career in law and public service in Chicago to volunteer to work in Iraq. He was not what we called a “palace rat” — someone who refused to leave the embassy for work outside the wire. Terry was different. He was the best-dressed man I have ever seen in a combat zone. But he didn’t wear a “full Bremer,” complete with khakis, combat boots and a blue blazer. He was more subtle than that. Even in 120 degrees of blast-furnace heat, he had on a pressed cotton shirt, pants with a crease in them and polished shoes. All this while wearing a helmet and armor and traveling to places such as Fallujah, where roads can have a coating of dust five inches deep.

He epitomized that old Hemingway ideal of grace under pressure. While I, a middle-aged lawyer, was sweltering in cargo pants and a rumpled polo shirt with white salt marks from my sweat, Terry would hop aboard convoys as if he were going to the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston. He didn’t shirk work that required him to be in some very ugly places. Most of us liked to complain a bit. Terry didn’t.

I flew to Dulles the day after my party. I came home to Arlington and an e-mail account full of messages from my friends back in Iraq. Terry had been killed in Fallujah later that weekend. He was riding in the ninth vehicle in a convoy, checking on the status of the city’s wastewater-treatment plant. His vehicle had struck an improvised explosive device, killing several aboard, including a Navy officer, a contractor and Terry.

At 56, I have built coping mechanisms over the years when someone close to me dies, especially in combat. I send out a “Family Gram” to relatives and friends, and I usually include my Marine and Army friends as well. Those who have lost buddies in combat know that friendships formed in war zones are like no others. I was particularly touched after Terry’s death by the words of many Marine friends, as all of them had experienced this kind of loss.

Last fall I attended a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for a fallen Marine. I did not know him, but I knew his father. I came to honor his service and to show my respect. The young Marine had died in Sangin, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, where I had just finished a tour as a senior adviser for the State Department. Marines are an insular lot — a tribal, warrior clan, and one of their own had fallen. Gathered at the funeral were several hundred Marines: young ones, senior ranking officers and retired Marines. The young widow, starkly beautiful, was lost in her grief.

I took it all in: the singing of “Danny Boy,” the horse-drawn caisson, the folded flag handed to the new widow. I bit my lip to keep my tears away. I went home exhausted, but I could see, and appreciate, what a grateful nation did to honor someone who had died in its service.

I have a simple request to make: We should allow federal civilian employees who die in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan to be buried at Arlington Cemetery. Terry Barnich isn’t even listed in newspapers as a fatality of the Iraq war — he wasn’t in the military. And he couldn’t be buried at Arlington.

I know there’s a distinction between military service and civilian service. But consider this: World War II and the Korean War had extremely few civilians involved in combat. Vietnam started the trend, with certain federal agencies sending civilians into the war. Iraq and Afghanistan have seen, for the first time, fairly large numbers of civilians serving side by side with Marines and soldiers. In Afghanistan, we serve in forward-deployed “district support teams.” In Helmand, where I led the civilian team into Marja immediately after the Marines cleared the town last year, four of us composed the civilian presence there, all in tight quarters with the Marines, in an exposed and dangerous area.

I know, as Terry knew, what it feels like to have a mortar round land so close to you that the blast wave blows your helmet off your head (sorry, some of us civilians don’t snap the chin straps). Or to have rockets hit the sleeping quarters next to yours, splitting it open like it was made of aluminum foil, killing its occupants. Or even the painful indignity of having rocks hit your face, thrown by children when you run out of candy to give them.

Military service is still qualitatively different. The most dangerous jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan are always held by troops: manning a checkpoint, being a turret gunner or, worse, acting as human bait, as Marines do when they’re out on foot patrols in Helmand, seeking to identify the location of Taliban fighters. We civilians don’t have it that bad, and unlike the troops, we can quit (even if most of us don’t).

I’m not asking for special treatment or anything that doesn’t acknowledge those differences. What I am asking for is respect. When I go, as an unarmed civilian, with a Marine patrol to some outlying area such as Marja, I try my best to step in the exact footprints of the Marine in front of me. With each step, I wonder if this is my unlucky day. And should I get killed, I’d like to be buried at Arlington Cemetery. (I did serve in the Army, and so would be eligible for inurnment at the Arlington columbarium, but that wouldn’t have anything to do with my current wartime service.)

There are very few of us who do this for a living, year in, year out. Civilians help form local governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Civilian knowledge is used in specialty areas such as agriculture, where some USDA experts serve in the field with the military, helping Afghan subsistence farmers increase their yields so that they and their families can make it through the winter. Only a few of us die each year.

We know the risks. We have no sense of entitlement. We want no special benefits and don’t feel we deserve medals. But should we give our final measure to our country as a result of direct enemy action, I think we should be eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Marc Chretien, a lawyer and a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, served for more than five years as a senior adviser with the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan. He expects to deploy to Afghanistan again late this summer.

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