Monday, November 20, 2006

Today is His Twentieth Birthday

Today I went to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.

I felt compelled to go pay my respects to some of our war dead from Iraq.

As I arrived at Arlington I asked an official where they were burying our men and women from Iraq. He gave me a map and showed me the spot.

At the section with Americans killed recently I passed an old lady. She was sitting in a lawn chair at the grave of her husband, likely a WW II veteran. She was sobbing--just sitting there, broken and grief stricken. With her chair, she looked like she was going to be spending much time there today.

This side of the section, one of perhaps a hundred such sections in our national graveyard, included older men and their wives from earlier wars and earlier service to the country. At the opposite side, with thousands of headstones in between, there were around ten people, lots of fresh flowers covering fresh graves, and other evidence of recent deaths.

I headed over.

The first headstone I saw of a soldier killed in Iraq was from a man born in November 1968, 2.5 years after me. He was 37.

I saw many brand new graves that were as recent as four days old. They had temporary markers.

Four days old. A recent rain collapsed the dirt along the edges leaving a clearly demarked depression—each with a coffin below, most with flowers piled on top. These men (I saw no women) were killed in late October, less than a month ago. With over a hundred killed that month, some found Arlington as their final resting place.

I saw flowers to a father from a mother and son.

We love you. We miss you.

I saw a family visiting the grave of their son, and brother.

They obsessively arranged and rearranged flower arrangements. He was killed two months ago. What else can we do?

Then I saw a young man. He was crouched down, talking, praying, in communion with a dead man.

I continued slowly down the line. As I approached he stood up, self conscious.

I asked if he was a relative.

No, he was my friend.

I said I was sorry.

He said today is his 20th birthday.

Seeing him forlorn in his loss, hearing it was his friend’s birthday, left me speechless, and choked up.

I drifted away weaving through hundreds of graves. I counted about 300. Over 95% were killed in Iraq--a handful in Afghanistan.

I wanted to go back to get the name of the young man’s friend, but decided his private time with his lost friend was more important. I stayed away. I don’t know when he arrived or when he left, but I do know that he spent a long time today transfixed and grieving at the grave of his friend.

Today was his 20th birthday.

His 20th birthday.

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