An unexpected type of vigil

In 2012 the husband and I went to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day and I blogged about it. Yesterday was Memorial Day 2014 and we went with the parents, who are in town, and the little oyster, who wasn’t yet born in May of 2012. This time Arlington had a very different feel. Actually, I bet Arlington had the same feel last time we were there but this time we were tuned in to it. In all honestly, I was looking for it.

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These are in Section 66, where one of the dad’s Navy buddies is buried. I remember stories about this guy, and it was something to see an Arlington National Cemetery stone with a name you recognize. I can imagine what it was like for the dad, who knew the man behind the name.

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Still, in the early afternoon we were the only ones in Section 66, and Arlington was not strapped for visitors yesterday. Section 66 was quiet, serene, sad. Not just because it’s a cemetery, but because it was quiet and serene. Those who have lost the men and women buried in Section 66 were not there this Memorial Day. Going by the dates on many of these particular stones, these men and women passed away not in combat, but of old age or illness later in life. No doubt they are missed, but please let me be so bold as to say that these things, old age or illness late in life are exactly how we want to let our loved ones go.

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But if Section 66 is sad because it was still and alone, Section 60 is heartbreaking because it is busy and full of life and death, side by side. Section 60 is where Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being laid to rest.

I recently read a beautiful and devastating memoir called Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson. The author’s husband, Miles, was an army pilot who died in Afghanistan when his helicopter went down a few months after deploying. Miles was 24 and at 26, Artis was a war widow. Miles’ ashes were scattered on his parents’ property in Texas but the other soldier who died in the Apache crash was one named John Priestner. He is buried at Arlington. Volunteers hand out roses to Arlington visitors. Obviously I didn’t know Miles Henderson or John Priestner, but I knew their story from the book and I wanted to lay my rose by John Priestner.

In the book, Artis Henderson talks about sitting with John Priestner’s wife Teresa at her husband’s grave on Memorial Day(s). And yes, by the time we got there in the early afternoon, a flower arrangement bearing a little ribbon that said “husband and father” was there. Again, I don’t know these people but I know their story. John Priestner and Miles Henderson are not mine to miss, but I laid two roses at Priestner’s headstone for them anyway.

All around us in Section 60 were families, there to spend the day with the husbands, sons, fathers, sisters, daughters, and deeply loved ones. And it was loud. It looked like a picnic, with so many people there and so many in macabrely festive shirts–the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) does a weekend seminar for surviving military families and the bright red shirts they get were everywhere. I recognized the acronym from Henderson’s book. The number of little kids in TAPS shirts was heartbreaking.

I took this video of Section 60 when we were there yesterday.

The faces around me were the last ones these brave souls pictured, if there was time. These children, spouses, their photos were the ones tacked up next to bunks in the desert and then taken down by buddies, packed up, and sent home. As if what any of these people wanted back were photos of themselves.

When I picture someone keeping vigil, I tend to think night, candles, silence. But all around Section 60 were vigil-keepers, prepared for the day with coolers and umbrellas. They were dressed in red, white, and blue, some sitting quietly alone or in pairs in front of head stones, others in groups, talking, taking pictures, telling stories of the life carved into marble at their feet. Some appeared to be catching up with neighbors, people they likely see every Memorial Day and only on Memorial Day, when they spend hours side by side keeping vigil.

Some headstones hadn’t arrived yet, and little plastic placards were stuck in the ground to hold the spots. I crouched down in front of one to see what it was about and saw these placards list the date of interment. One of the dates was 5/23/14. That was Friday. I remember what I was doing on Friday. On Friday I was picking strawberries with my daughter. I wasn’t burying my loved one at Arlington National Cemetery. And I certainly wasn’t saying goodbye to a soldier born in 1984 0r 1985 or 1989. Or 1992. 1992? I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

And yes, I cried and yes, I felt bad for crying because I did not lose these men and women as their families in front of me have. I saw other people crying, sitting near stones or walking away from them, and I wanted to hug them all and thank them all and take them all away from there and also make it so they never had to leave there if they didn’t want to.

The cemetery itself is beautiful and beautifully kept. As soon as someone is laid to rest, fresh green turf is rolled over the spot. Even though only a few spots in a row may be filled those spots are covered in rectangles of grass, flat and neat, like green beach towels laid across sand. These lives may have ended unfinished, but the burial of these broken bodies is meticulous and complete.

I bet when a military wife gets her husband home safe from a deployment she feels blessed. Maybe she would use another word but I think the overwhelming feeling must be along those lines. Last time we went to Arlington we went to see the history. This time we saw current events. It hurt my throat. It hurt my heart. Instead of feeling blessed, I felt spoiled.

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4 thoughts on “An unexpected type of vigil

  1. Pingback: The last one | red white and new

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