Gifted writer and reporter Robert Poole opens Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery with preparations for Memorial Day when thousands of families come to visit those buried in the 624-acre cemetery, legions of Rolling Thunder motorcyclists patrol the streets with fluttering POW flags, and service members place miniature flags before each of Arlington's graves. Section 60, where many of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid to rest alongside service members from earlier wars, is a fourteen-acre plot that looms far larger in the minds and hearts of Americans. It represents a living, breathing community of fellow members of the military, family members, friends, and loved ones of those who have fallen to the new weapons of war: improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs, and enemies who blend in with local populations. Several of the newest recruits for Section 60 have been brought there by suicide or post-traumatic stress disorder, a war injury newly described but dating to ancient times.
Using this section as a window into the latest wars, Poole recounts stories of courage and sacrifice by fallen heroes, and explores the ways in which soldiers' comrades, friends, and families honor and remember those lost to warcarrying on with life in the aftermath of tragedy. Section 60 is a moving tribute to those who have fought and died for our country, and to those who love them.
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About the Author
Robert M. Poole is a writer and editor whose work for National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other magazines has taken him around the world. His last book, On Hallowed Ground, earned wide critical acclaim and was one of the Washington Post's Best Books of 2009. Poole, former executive editor of National Geographic, lives in Vermont.
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Section 60 Arlington National Cemetery
Where War Comes Home
By Robert M. Poole
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2014 Robert M. Poole
All rights reserved.
THE LONGEST WAR
For most of the country, the longest war in the history of the United States has taken place largely out of sight, the casualties piling up in faraway Iraq and Afghanistan while normal life continued on the home front, with no war taxes, no draft notices, no gas rationing, and none of the shared sacrifice of the nation's earlier conflicts.
The one exception has been in Section 60, a corner of Arlington National Cemetery where more than nine hundred men and women have come to rest in the past decade. "This is one of the few places you'd know we've had a war going on," said retired Navy Cdr. Kirk S. Lippold, who stood near the center of Section 60 on a fine May morning as cemetery workers tidied the graves and rolled out plush new mats of turf in preparation for another Memorial Day.
Lippold, former skipper of the USS Cole, had come to pay his respects to three shipmates, Technician Second Class Kenneth Eugene Clodfelter, Chief Petty Officer Richard Dean Costlow, and Seaman Cherone Louis Gunn, now lying side by side beneath neat white tombstones. Months before the phrase "9/11" entered the language, this trio of sailors became early casualties in the long war, killed on October 12, 2000, after two suicide bombers from Al Qaeda approached the Cole, detonated explosives packed in their motorboat, and almost succeeded in sinking the 8,400-ton guided-missile destroyer while it was refueling in Yemen. Along with Clodfelter, Costlow, and Gunn, fourteen other sailors died in the explosion, which might be considered the opening shot of a conflict now known as the Global War on Terror.
"Their deaths were prelude to everything that's happened in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Lippold. "It was an act of war, no doubt about that." As he spoke, a few other pilgrims wandered the cemetery, bringing fresh carnations and roses to nearby tombstones, spreading blankets on graves, and resuming their conversations with the dead. Before long hundreds of soldiers from nearby Fort Myer would swarm among the headstones to plant miniature American flags at each grave for Memorial Day, a spring ritual of remembrance with roots in the Civil War.
In the years since the Cole bombing, Section 60 has been busy, with the crack of rifle salutes and the silvery notes of Taps announcing the arrival of new conscripts with depressing frequency—several times a day at the peak of the recent wars. The most active subdivision of Arlington, Section 60 occupies just fourteen acres of the 624-acre cemetery, but this postage stamp of earth represents something much larger. It is a place to mourn those lost in America's latest war, to remember each of those sacrificed, and to recount the journeys that brought them here, a place to consider how their wartime experience compares with that of those who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, all of whom share space in Section 60.
The whole history of our recent wars can be traced among the closely packed tombstones, which mark the graves of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, each of whom earned a berth at Arlington by volunteering, suiting up, and paying the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many came home in pieces, dismembered by the signature weapons of our latest conflict—suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which often cheated families out of the age-old ritual of seeing brothers, fathers, sons, and daughters one last time. Other warriors came to Section 60 as the result of storybook bravery, instinctively throwing themselves on grenades, fatally walking point on foot patrol, leading the charge into enemy strongholds, or drowning while trying to save comrades struggling in canals and rivers. Quite a few were shot by snipers, while others were knocked from the sky in hostile territory, killed in airplane or chopper accidents, or gunned down in sneak attacks—the all too familiar "green on blue" killings of recent years—at the hands of supposed Afghan allies. A handful of the toughest and the bravest survived frequent combat deployments, came home, and tried to settle into civilian life, only to falter from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other invisible injuries that consigned them to Arlington.
Those buried in Section 60 achieve a kind of immortality as friends, family, and comrades converge on this part of Arlington to keep their memories alive. The living come to remember birthdays, celebrate anniversaries, and recall exploits from "downrange," as combatants refer to the battlefront these days. Most visits include a gift or memento to show that someone still cares. Kids bring report cards for parental review, wives bring sonograms of unborn children, fiancés come with love letters. Comrades who were present at a friend's death leave a quarter to commemorate the moment, or a penny to show they were in boot camp together. Some of these tributes are left to fade in the rain and humidity; others are written on rocks in indelible ink. "I thank you for coming into my life & changing it," read one of the latter, left for Army Pfc. Jalfred Vaquerano, killed in Afghanistan. "Thank you for loving me until the end ... I will see you soon my love." A two-year-old named Christian, dressed head to toe in camouflage for Memorial Day, ran over to his father's grave, patted the stone, and shouted: "Bye-bye, Daddy! I love you."
Anthony Coyer, having made the long overnight drive from Saginaw, Michigan, with his wife and daughter, set up lawn chairs before his son Ryan's tombstone in Section 60, and shared a few toasts of Jack Daniel's with the dead Army Ranger, who was twenty-six when he died. Tony fell asleep in the warm spring sunlight, napping companionably on his son's grave. Beth Belle brought little flags and fresh flowers for her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas C. Kirven, twenty-one. Peeking into a white bakery box someone had left for him, she expressed approval. "Oh, he loved sugar cookies!" she said, easing the box back onto the grass in front of Grave No. 60-8180. Paula Davis released a cloud of yellow balloons and sang Happy Birthday to her only son, Army Pfc. Justin R. Davis, who was nineteen when he was killed. "He'd be old enough to drink by now."
Marine Lance Cpl. Brandon Long, who lost his legs in Afghanistan, wheeled over the turf, stopped at the tombstone of Cpl. Derek Allen Wyatt, and lit two Newports, one for himself and one for his buddy. Leaning over the edge of his wheelchair, Long tenderly placed Wyatt's cigarette in the grass like a joss stick and watched the smoke coil toward the sky. "He never bought one for himself but always expected one from me," Long said with a tight smile. Master Sgt. David V. Hill, a former Green Beret with numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, halted before the grave of Army Maj. Jeffrey P. Toczylowski, known to his friends as Toz, and broke into a smile, recalling the dead man's memorable—and generous—parting gesture.
"He fell out of a chopper in Iraq," said Hill. "That's what killed him." A few days later Toz's friends and family received an e-mail from the dead Special Forces officer: "If you are getting this e-mail, it means that I have passed away," Toz wrote. "No, it's not a sick Toz joke, but a letter I wanted to write in case this happened." He invited recipients to his service at Arlington "but I understand if you can't make it. There will also be a party in Vegas," he wrote, announcing that he had set aside $100,000 to cover travel, rooms, and other expenses for those attending his farewell bash. A few weeks later more than a hundred friends converged on the Palms Hotel and Casino, where Toz's mother, Peggy, greeted well-wishers, sparsely dressed barmaids served liquor from an open bar, and a disc jockey ramped up the music. A life-sized cardboard cutout of Major Toczylowski presided over the all-night party, which included a limbo contest and photo ops with Toz's stand-in.
"I wish I had been there!" said Hill, who was overseas at the time. "I heard it was some party."
Few others have left the stage with Toz's flair. But all are remembered and sorely missed by those who flock to Section 60, now almost full after a dozen years of conflict. Until something replaces it, this part of Arlington will serve as a memorial for the recent wars, a point of contact for the community of the living and the community of the dead. Their stories are the subject of this book, which is a heartfelt salute to those on both sides of the grave.
Excerpted from Section 60 Arlington National Cemetery by Robert M. Poole. Copyright © 2014 Robert M. Poole. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Longest War 1
2 Rangers Lead the Way 11
3 Above and Beyond 57
4 From War to Peace 59
5 Improvised Death 91
6 Friendly Fire 117
7 The Long Way Home 145
8 Final Honors 175