Across the Potomac River from Washington’s great monuments, Jake Dowell and his family came to Arlington National Cemetery on Monday to visit his grandfather’s grave. But he also wanted to pay his respects to a soldier he had never met and whose name he had learned only in the past week: Army Capt. Humayun Khan.
Khan’s parents and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump have been in a heated confrontation for days, after Khan’s father, Khizr, forcefully spoke out against Trump at the Democratic National Convention last week. Khan and his wife, Ghazala, continued to do so on television over the weekend, and a chorus of Republicans, Democrats and military veterans rushed to the couple’s defense after Trump criticized them.
Humayun Khan was killed in 2004 by a car bomb in Baqubah, Iraq. The captain was inspecting a guard post when he spotted a taxi speeding toward him. Khan yelled for people to hit the ground, and he ran toward the taxi. Its driver detonated a bomb before it could hit the post or a nearby mess hall, where hundreds of soldiers were eating breakfast. Khan was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Those awards are etched onto Khan’s white granite headstone, along with a crescent moon and star, signifying his Muslim faith. He was born on Sept. 9, 1976. He died on June 8, 2004. He was 27.
The political fight swirling around Khan’s parents and Trump — which has dominated the presidential race in recent days — seems far removed from Section 60 of the cemetery, where row after row of white headstones stand in long grass and in air heavy with humidity on the first day of August. Most of the soldiers in the row where Khan was laid to rest also died in Iraq in 2004; their headstones are inscribed with crosses, Stars of David, medals of valor — and dates of death far too close to their dates of birth. Two bouquets of fresh flowers lay next to the headstone of a man who would have been 32 Monday.
A stream of supporters, including the Dowells, have been coming to honor Khan over the past few days. Two white orchid petals sit atop his headstone. A bouquet of red carnations leans against it. There are pink and yellow roses and a small U.S. flag. Inside a plastic bag, a white envelope is addressed to “Mr. & Mrs. Khan,” along with a small card reading, “Do small things with great love,” emblazoned with a drawing of a sparrow.
Then, from the solitude, emerged a reminder of all that was happening on television sets and Twitter: A caravan of cars pulled up, and a horde of photographers and camera operators walked toward Khan’s grave, led by a cemetery representative.
The Dowells — Jake, 17; his father, Tony, 50; and 19-year-old sister, Hannah, all from Chicago — cooled off at a water pump before heading to Khan’s grave.
“I just wanted to see and pay my respects to an American hero,” Jake Dowell said. He was moved by Khan’s story — “a representation of what it means to be an American,” he said.
He said he believes that Khan lived the American Dream — and was willing to sacrifice his life so that others can live it as well.
Standing by the water pump, Tony Dowell began to tear up as he looked around at the rows and rows of graves.
“They had their lives and stories,” he said, his voice quavering. “It’s just a very emotional place.”
The family started to walk down the road toward Khan’s grave. They are Hillary Clinton supporters and vehemently disagree with many of Trump’s proposals, including his call to ban Muslims from the United States.
Hannah Dowell looked around and said that everyone whose graves she saw had given so much.
“You hear Trump,” she said. “He hasn’t sacrificed anything for this country. And I wanted to pay my respects to an American hero who sacrificed so much.”
But the visit wasn’t about the election.
“There is nothing political about paying your respects to an American hero,” Jake Dowell said, a sentiment his father quoted on Twitter after the visit.
As they walked toward the grave, reporters and cameras still surrounded it. Sally Schwartz, 65, and her mother, Harriet Schwartz, 85, stood before the grave. Harriet leaned on a black cane.
“We thought we’d pay our respects,” Sally Schwartz said as the women walked away.
Jake Dowell walked up to the headstone. He stared at it for some time. He exhaled. He walked away, wiping his eyes.
“I’m very overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s a power that can’t be described in words, almost.”
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.