Joe Myers graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 2004 and served two Army tours in Iraq.
I go to Arlington National Cemetery to listen. I hear the crackling of calm voices giving situation reports over the radio. I hear the terrifying explosions and the twisting of metal. I hear the laughter and the soldier’s wry, irreverent humor. I hear the mother’s inconsolable cry. I can hear it all in Section 60, sometimes referred to these days as “the saddest acre in America.” Cradled within this soil are hundreds of American men and women who died in voluntary service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I stop first at the grave of Staff Sgt. Jonathan K. Dozier. We served together during my second tour in Iraq. He was one of the most respected noncommissioned officers in our squadron. He died in a flash in January 2008, with six others, in a house that was rigged to explode. Before he died, Dozier, 30, wrote to his father, “I am a loyal American soldier. I believe in things larger than myself and making sacrifices for the greater good.”
Not far from him is Capt. John Ryan Dennison. Denny was a classmate of mine at West Point. I first saw him in the summer of 2000, during basic training. I remember watching him in formation and admiring his cool confidence, even as an 18-year-old, in a hostile environment. Denny and I became close during plebe year. He approached life with a vigor rarely matched, whether he was competitive sport parachuting or running a 50-mile race.
Denny had read about and admired Capt. Rocky Versace, a Medal of Honor recipient who courageously defied his Vietnamese captors in a prisoner-of-war camp. Versace, who was from Alexandria, was segregated from his fellow prisoners. The last time they heard his voice, he was singing “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs. Denny once visited the marker at Arlington that honors Versace, who was executed in Vietnam. When I look at pictures of Versace and Denny, I can see the same zest and unconquerable soul pouring out of their smiles.
Upon graduation in 2004, Denny married the love of his life, Haley, a fellow classmate. He served in the 82nd Airborne Division during the bloodiest period of the Iraq war as an infantry platoon leader. He was 24 when he was killed in a firefight in 2006. On his marker is the biblical verse Romans 5:1-5, which reads in part: “but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Looking up, I see a tree several hundred yards to the northwest, and I remember the first time I visited Section 60. In June 1993, I watched as my grandfather and namesake was laid to rest under that tree. Joe Myers was a professional soldier. He graduated from West Point, barely, in 1941. His adventurous spirit led him to the newest and most dangerous arm of warfare — parachute infantry. With the same 82nd Airborne Division that Denny would go to war with 63 years later, Joe jumped into Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Holland; when he and other “four-jump vets” talked about their experiences, the places usually rolled off their tongues as one word. Joe collected three Purple Hearts and three Bronze Star medals for valor; and he went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam. He retired after 27 years of service. Along the way, he wedded Fran, the widow of one of his fallen West Point track teammates, Charles “Moon” Mullins. Joe raised Moon’s two sons as his own. He died not in the din of combat he knew so well but at 76, surrounded by family during a reunion.
As I reflect on the lives of these three men, I am not filled with the sadness that is so often associated with Section 60. Sadness is reserved for lives not lived. Each of these men lived, and lived proudly, whether it was for 24, 30 or 76 years. I am reminded of a eulogy that cadets often passed around while I was at West Point. Before he was killed during the Vietnam War, Maj. John A. Hottell III wrote his own obituary and sent his wife a letter that included these points:
“I loved the Army. . . . Thanks to it I have lived an entire lifetime in 26 years. It is only fitting that I should die in its service. . . . And yet, I deny that I died FOR anything — not my Country, not my Army, not my fellow man, none of these things. I LIVED for these things.”
Section 60 is not the saddest acre in America. No, to me it is the proudest acre.