The wife and I made our annual visit to Arlington National Cemetery this Memorial Day. It was a beautiful day – not nearly as hot as years past – as we strolled to Section 60, the area of the cemetery that houses the most recent war dead from the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
On our way there, we stumbled upon the above tombstone for U.S. Army Sergeant First Clast Paul Ray Smith, the first U.S. service member to receive a Medal of Honor in connection with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. He was killed in action on April 4, 2003 – manning a .50 caliber machine gun on a disabled armored personnel carrier and fighting off an Iraqi counterattack until he was mortally wounded. After you read the citation on his MoH – found here thanks to the Army – the morning commute on I-95 won’t seem that bad.
Both the location of Smith’s tombstone and the wording on his marker struck us as unusual. Smith’s gravesite was at least 10 minutes from Section 60 and was surrounded by the war dead from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, as well as their spouses. Not another Iraq or Afghanistan grave was in sight. The tombstone prefaces Smith’s name with “In Memory Of,” which seems repetitive. Who else would we be honoring but the guy whose name is on the tombstone?
Section 60 was as we left it a couple years ago – endless rows with names of guys and gals who met their Maker in the last 14 years. The number of visitors seemed smaller at around noon, but the vice president’s motorcade and a security scare may have delayed the arrival of many scores of visitors. (The security scare – a buffoon was wearing a backpack with protruding wires – see something, say something – right?)
I did hear something I have rarely heard during these annual visits – laughter. After wiping away tears, former comrades, family and friends gathered in groups to talk and crack jokes about their departed bud, sometimes leaving behind an empty can of his/her favorite beer. There were many children, some probably babies when their mother, father or other loved one was killed. There were no broken people, just resolute faces summoning the strength to remember and love, but move on.
We left as a graying, wrinkled man wearing a kilt played “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes. How sweet the sound, as a gentle breeze gave us relief during our walk home.