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At Arlington, Telling the End of the War Stories

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.

The conversation I had with him -- like the vast majority of conversations I have with the friends and family of fallen service members -- was startlingly uplifting. It's one reason this job isn't as numbing or depressing as it might seem: The stories the families tell are happy ones. Partly that's because when you tell the stories of people who sacrificed their lives for their country, there's a natural inclination to remember the best of them. But it's also because these stories ultimately end in heroism and sacrifice. And they stick with me.

They are stories of young soldiers like a 19-year-old Oklahoman who joined the Army before he was old enough to vote. Another soldier who joined before turning 18 was Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael Slebodnik, a 39-year-old helicopter pilot and father of six who died on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. His mother said he "died doing what he loved doing."

Some come from long lines of military service, while others shocked their families by deciding to serve.

Often the story doesn't end with a soldier's death. That was the case with Pfc. Dawid Pietrek, a Polish immigrant who could neither vote nor obtain a U.S. passport. Pietrek, 24, was killed last summer in Afghanistan. His mother wanted two things for him: burial at Arlington Cemetery and U.S. citizenship. Shortly before the former took place last July, the latter came true when a Department of Homeland Security official presented her with her son's certificate of posthumous citizenship.

Another story that continued beyond death was that of Brian Bunting, an Army captain from Potomac. He and his wife, Nicki, had one child but wanted a large family. Brian came home on leave from Afghanistan in February, and he and Nicki planned for another baby, picking out names. He returned to duty and was killed two weeks later, on Feb. 24. Just days later, his wife learned that she was pregnant with their second child. She said that the pregnancy brought her only happiness. She said that she knows Brian would want her to be smiling, not crying.

The people I write about are often young -- even younger than I am. Those killed in Iraq between the ages of 18 and 29 vastly outnumber the fallen who were 30 or older. So theirs are stories of lives yet to be lived, lives just begun.

But regardless of age, the families I speak with often tell me that they just want their loved one's story to be told. It isn't easy for them to talk. I've seen people ranging from a young wife to a long-time Marine Corps veteran choke up while describing their loss. It's impossible not to be affected, but then they thank me for writing about it. It's a small thing in the scheme of things, but it's the least we can do -- just provide coverage.

Timothy Brown, the twin brother of First Lt. Thomas J. Brown, who died in Salman Pak, Iraq, said that his brother had told him to make sure that people didn't forget about the soldiers still in combat. He told me that if people read about Thomas and just thought about the troops, he'd be happy.

And it's tough to keep a focus on the ever-mounting losses. People have short attention spans, and the news cycle is hyper-caffeinated. The longer the wars last, the more other stories beckon. A year before the 2008 presidential election, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that Iraq was a primary concern for 29 percent of voters. Shortly before the election, with the economy in full meltdown, another Washington Post-ABC News poll had the Iraq war as the primary concern of just 8 percent of the electorate.

War fatigue and added concerns at home combine for less and less attention to those still fighting and dying. With a volunteer military that doesn't require equal measures of sacrifice from all corners of the country, the balance of pain and loss is tipped toward a select minority made up of those whose loved ones decided to serve.

There are 548 (and counting) men and women from our two current wars buried at Arlington Cemetery -- barely more than 10 percent of the nearly 5,000 so far killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't want to lecture or guilt-trip anyone. But if there were ever a time to remember and pay attention, it's this weekend. And trust me, it's easy to get to Arlington. It's a stop on the Metro and right across the river from the District. It's car-, bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. Just head through the gate and turn left.

You can't miss Section 60.

bermanm@washpost.com

Mark Berman is on the staff of The Post's Virginia desk.

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