New Graves, Fresh Grief

(Michel Du Cille - The Washington Post)

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By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

In Section 60, death remains too fresh to be separated from life.

You see it in the 17 cigars pushed into the grass near one headstone, signs that a combat unit stopped by.

And in the mother who spent winter afternoons wrapped in a sleeping bag, stretched across her son's grave.

And in the older man who reads Robert Frost to the dead, knowing that their families live thousands of miles away.

Here in Section 60 are the graves of 336 men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan -- almost one in 10 of the dead. Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have produced the highest percentage of burials at Arlington National Cemetery from any war. For the duration of this war, there have been few photographs of coffins returning home. Section 60 is the one place to get a sense of the immensity of the nation's loss.

The great expanse of the cemetery is known for its orderliness, its precision. Each Memorial Day, the government places an American flag exactly one foot in front of every headstone. Only flowers are allowed on graves.

But in "60," the messiness of life disrupts the order. Picnics are laid and incense burned. Red glass hearts are left atop the headstones. Origami-style sheets of notebook paper are tucked away, safe from lawn mower blades.

Mothers and widows, friends and regretful exes write intimate notes, some as casual as a message stuck on a refrigerator door.

"I called your old cellphone the other day. Someone named Brian has it now, and I couldn't help but wonder if he knew anything about you."

"It was so wonderful having lunch with you. Now that I know how easy it is to get here by Metro, I'll come by way more often."

Here, the deaths haven't been fully absorbed. People talk to their dead. They still see their dead. "Somebody drives by," says Linda Bishop, a few feet from the grave site of her son Jeff, "and you think it's him. You see him." The phone rings, says Xiomara Mena Anderson, standing over the grave of her son Andy, and "I always think it's him."

Other parts of Arlington wear the dignified repose of old age and bygone eras. Section 60 reverberates with youth and immediacy. Visitors wear long sideburns and spiky hair, flip flops and eyelet skirts.


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