'This Is Really the Only Place I Could Be Today'

By Jenna Johnson and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In previous years, the families spent Memorial Day at barbecues and pool openings. Yesterday, they sat in folding chairs in the shade of a tent at a grassy cemetery dotted with small American flags to honor 10 loved ones with Maryland ties killed in the past year in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Right now, we'd be sitting at home, trying to enjoy the holiday," said Danny Craig of Earleville, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. His son, Cpl. Brandon M. Craig, 25, was killed in July in Iraq.

"We didn't know anything about the Army when Brandon joined," said Mary Jane Craig, who wore her son's dog tags. "It opens your eyes. It's a totally different ballgame. We learned so much about our country, Iraq, everything."

Memorial Day began as a way to recognize troops killed during the Civil War and was expanded after World War I to recognize service members killed in all U.S. wars. With the death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan increasing, the holiday is also a time to honor troops fighting and dying in current conflicts.

In the Washington region, several ceremonies and concerts, a parade and a rally by Rolling Thunder motorcyclists paid tribute to the fallen troops over the weekend.

Yesterday, President Bush joined visitors on a warm morning at Arlington National Cemetery, where he continued the annual tradition of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Bush recognized all of the troops who died defending the United States and particularly those who lost their lives in the past year.

Wreaths also were laid at the Air Force and Navy memorials.

In the afternoon, 10 blocks of Constitution Avenue NW were closed for the National Memorial Day Parade, which featured marching bands and military units.

Military couple Mike and Kristen Nelson and their two children stood near the National Archives, watching the seemingly endless line of floats and balloons. The Arlington County couple spent most of last year apart: Mike was deployed to Iraq's heavily fortified Green Zone with the Army Corps of Engineers for six months. Five days after he returned home, Kristen learned that she would spend the next six months in Iraq with the Air Force. She returned home in January.

"We didn't plan it. It was unexpected," Mike Nelson said. "So this is the first time we've been able to come out here as a family."

Lance Cpl. Tom Pettit, 19, drove to the District yesterday morning from Marine Corps Base Quantico, where he is stationed. Standing with his hands on his hips, Pettit watched the high school color guards, old cars and colorful floats carrying celebrities such as Miss America 2008 Kirsten Haglund and actor Mickey Rooney, a World War II veteran and honorary parade marshal.

Commemorative coins and tokens jingled in Pettit's pocket. Spotting his uniform, several passersby had eagerly run up to him, patting him on the back and giving him a few mementos.

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