Mark Berman -- Reporting From Arlington National Cemetery

By Mark Berman
Sunday, May 24, 2009

Burials at Arlington National Cemetery are always the same, yet never the same. They all follow identical rules and protocol, but no two can ever be alike -- it's always a different soldier, a different story, a different sacrifice, a different life and a different death.

I've been covering burials at Arlington for The Post for two years. Before attending one for the first time on March 13, 2007, I had never been to a burial in my 23 years. I didn't get the job because of military expe rience (I have none) or because of any overarching desire to spend a lot of time at funerals. It was simply something that The Post did, so it became something that I did. I've now attended more than 70 of these ceremonies, and recently I realized that apart from my home and my office, the place where I've spent most of my time in the past two years is a cemetery.

When I first started, I was worried about bothering the families and concerned that attending so many burials would be a regular date with an emotional battering ram, leaving me either a wreck or, worse, numb to the sadness. Now I know that it's pretty much impossible to grow numb to such events. No matter how many times you watch a young widow trying to balance a folded flag on her lap while holding a squirming baby, it never fails to get to you. The worst, for me, is the children: not the babies, since they have no idea what's going on, but the little ones just old enough to understand death. In their miniature suits or dresses, they stare wide-eyed at all the dark-clad people gazing fixedly at the wooden box.

With very few exceptions, the burials follow this script: The remains arrive, either in a flag-covered coffin or in a small container of ashes, followed by a caravan of family and friends. Mourners park on the willow-oak-lined streets of the cemetery -- usually on York or Bradley Drive, the two roads that form the north and south boundaries of Section 60.

Section 60 is home to many of the graves of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's located in the southeastern quadrant, not far from the stretch of Route 27 that separates the cemetery from the Pentagon. The gravestones fill up the section from west to east, one after another, stretching across row after row; when they reach the end of one row, they move forward to the next and head back in the other direction.

There are a number of ways to qualify for burial at Arlington. Among those eligible are active duty members of the armed forces, retired veterans and certain relatives of someone already buried there. I've heard the decision to be buried at Arlington described as something quickly marked on a checklist. One soldier had made it clear during visits that it was where he wanted to be buried.

Thanks to a policy that took effect on Jan. 1, new honors -- a military band, a color team, an escort platoon and a horse-drawn caisson -- are available to all those being buried. Before the change, full military honors had been reserved for officers and enlisted personnel who reached the highest enlisted rank of E-9. Now it's available to all those killed in combat.

Services are short and to the point: a sermon, a few words about the fallen soldier, and sometimes the mourners bow their heads in prayer. Then the family members stand. A seven-person squad take turns firing three shots into the air. A bugler, standing at a respectful distance, plays taps. A folded flag or flags are presented to the family. And it's over.

There are occasional quirks. Sometimes you can hear the firing parties at other services. Other times, the noise of planes landing at or taking off from nearby National Airport and helicopters heading to and from the Pentagon drowns out any other sounds.

When I tell people that I spend a fair number of my working hours at a cemetery, the normal response is: "That sounds depressing." Of course, many of those who say that aren't really affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, they read about them, they know they're going on, and some have strong opinions about them. But for the most part, war is something that exists in another world. For so many people, Memorial Day is a day to attend a barbecue, not remember a fallen friend or loved one.

I know that feeling, too: If I weren't covering these burials, there's no chance I'd be as aware of them and of news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's astonishingly easy to block out the ongoing sacrifice. The military's own 18-year ban on media coverage at Dover Air Force Base, which was lifted this year, helped keep the blinders on. The current Dover policy is like the current Arlington policy: It's the family's choice. Relatives can decide whether the world sees their loved one's return. But for 18 years those who sacrificed their lives for their country returned in secret and in silence.

Tech Sgt. Phillip A. Myers was the first to be brought back under the changed policy. His father, Eddie, told me that his daughter-in-law, Aimee, had made the decision. "She wanted the world to see what was going on over there, to let the world see that it is bodies coming back," he said.

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