by Sharon Robino-West
I had come to Arlington National Cemetery to check in on some friends. This November afternoon, just past Veterans Day, was crisp and clear. Leaves still hung on the trees in patterns of orange and gold, red and brown. The air was a mild and delicious seventy degrees. The fall season in Arlington can often bring fog and mist, but this day did not threaten gloominess or rain. All around me, rows of stark, white grave markers spread across the rolling hills, seeming to run on forever.
I was stunned and mesmerized, an emotional welling brought on by my own service in the Marines, the service and sacrifices of my son, Eric, and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I had been here once before, in 2006, running the Marine Corps Marathon, which finishes at the Iwo Jima Memorial nearby. Training for that run got me through my son’s Iraq deployment. I had signed up for it at the beginning of his tour, and it kept my mind occupied. It also exhausted me so I couldn’t think about where he was or what he might be doing. During a phone call with Eric while he was in Iraq, I asked if he would like to run the marathon with me when he came home. Whether he wanted to run or just come along for support, I thought he might enjoy being around all the other Marines, and seeing the Iwo Jima Monument and maybe a brief glimpse of Arlington.
I sensed hesitation and tension. In a flash of recognition, I regretted that I couldn’t take back the request – the demand of a future commitment. I felt with certainty that he would return from war, while he remained unsure whether any future plans were promises he could keep. I had brought him to a place where he would have to commit to a date in the future, while he just could not or would not think beyond the next day. He finally answered that it was “too soon.”
He returned from his tour in Iraq, and he seemed amazingly peaceful and thankful. At first glance, he appeared fine. When he came home for his post-deployment leave, he didn’t seem easily startled or lose his temper the way people said that some returning veterans did. He was pleasant and polite and couldn’t do enough to help others. I enjoyed seeing his smile, but all too soon, his leave time ended and he returned to base. I spoke with Eric a few weeks later, and the call was strained. Returning to his duty station, he had found a new girlfriend, who was in the Army, but he mentioned that day-to-day work just left him feeling bored. He didn’t want to spend time in town or even in the Post Exchange because he didn’t want to hear people complaining about trivial things. Loud noises made him jump. He seemed irritable and on edge. Eric just wasn’t himself. With all of these changes in his behavior, I began to worry and pray for him every day, wondering when he would call us next. I had worried my way through his tour in Iraq, thankful that he had come home safe and sound to us. Now I was filled with foreboding. What had happened in his life since we’d seen him last? It felt like he was holding back.
I spoke with Eric when I scheduled this latest trip to Arlington. War changes a person in profound ways, and I wondered how he was handling his new perception of the world. I hoped he could still find safety somewhere. His feelings were still raw and the mental wounds painfully open. When I asked if he wanted to accompany me, I heard the same response as I had five years earlier, when I had asked him about running the Marine Corps Marathon with me: It was just too soon.
Arlington’s vastness can overwhelm any visitor, especially if there is someone there who holds a special place in your heart, someone with a name and a face. I had wanted my son with me as my companion on this trip. We were both Marines. It had been twenty-seven years since I fulfilled my four years of service with the United States Marine Corps, but we both understand Esprit de Corps, the pride and honor of that connection.
I would go to Arlington without him, bringing his condolences and part of his grief along with me. I wanted to lift some of that burden. And now it was time. I owed a tribute to Eric and those friends he had lost in Iraq. When I arrived in Section 60, where the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried, I saw more people here than almost anywhere else in the cemetery. Dozens of vases of fresh flowers adorned grave sites, and the earth smelled strongly of damp muskiness, the scent of a final resting place. The soil was so newly turned in some places that the sod covering the cemetery plots had not yet taken root. I felt shock and numbness when I looked at them. I had never set foot in such a hallowed space.
My son had friends here in Section 60, as many as thirteen. I knew a few mothers and other family members who might appreciate a picture of their loved ones, to see that they were resting well, taken care of and not forgotten. Eric and I had already discussed briefly some of the names of the fallen; I knew that he would be waiting to hear from me. I wanted to hear his voice when he spoke the names – their names – those that I knew meant so much to him. I needed the opportunity to console him, if it came to that, and I wanted him to know what these heroes meant to me, too. But I reconsidered the phone call; texting might make it easier on him.
Eric had been through so much with some of these men. In an instant, the news of another friend lost or pictures and videos of memorial services could bring it all rushing back. I felt a duty to protect him as best I could in the hope that the day would come when his memories might fade enough around the edges for him to touch them, if only for minutes at a time.
I sent him a message, asking if there was anyone in particular here that he would like me to visit. Haltingly, the names started coming up on the screen. Finally, he called. He named a couple of people, Sgt. Christian and Sgt. Wrightly among them. I looked over the directories then moved out to find these men.
Near the grave sites of Eric’s brothers-in-arms, I saw a man sitting in a stadium seat, drinking a beer and looking at a well-decorated grave. On top of the stone lay pins representing this warrior’s unit, as well as several little rocks and mementos. I told the man that I was sorry for his loss. He said he didn’t even know this soldier. He had met the man’s family the week before and found it peaceful visiting their son here, so he continued coming, honoring the family in his way. I thanked him again and moved on to search for my son’s friends.
I wandered through the grave markers, adorned with flowers and keepsakes, and wondered why we leave these things when we lose a loved one to war. I know that the military awards Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and other devices and decorations to make us, as a society, feel better. Perhaps we are also acknowledging that this loss is not the end, that they have moved on to an Afterlife, to their next level of responsibility, in a place we have not yet seen.
At Sgt. Christian’s grave, I saw an empty Jack Daniels bottle and a Heineken leaned precariously against the marker, along with challenge coins, letters from loved ones and photos, covered in plastic. Someone must have been celebrating Veterans Day with him. It was good to see that Sgt. Christian had not spent the holiday alone. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and snapped a photo.
Finally, I approached the grave of Sgt. Wrightly. Eric helped train Joe Wrightly when Joe was still considered a “boot,” a new Marine. He told me what a good kid Wrightly had been, that he had the makings of a leader. Wrightly, a Marine of color, came from the streets. He made his family proud by getting out of street life, and was well liked by his unit. Wrightly’s Humvee had overturned into a water-filled ravine, and he drowned before anyone could get to him. He left behind a family and a fiancé. I had spoken briefly with his fiancé from time to time. I didn’t know if she’d been able to come here yet to see him; I snapped a photo so that she could see the flowers and know that he was not forgotten. At least I could share this moment with her.
Leaving Section 60, I passed a woman lying face down across a grave. Two glasses and a bottle of wine were placed there, one glass with its contents flowing into the ground. Perhaps it was their anniversary, or maybe this was just her way of reaching out to him. I had no words. My “I’m sorry for your loss” would never be enough to convey my feelings or soothe her pain.
As I walked away from Section 60, I wondered how we best honor their legacy. How do we let them know we will never forget? I live with the changes in my son, the changes that have come to my family through Eric’s experiences and I live with the changes in me. I don’t think I will ever sleep through the night peacefully, knowing someone’s loved one is patrolling an area of the world for our safety. And I know that when a person goes off to war, they will never be the same. There is a certain innocence that can never be regained. How could they not be changed? Some return to us tired but relieved and able to lead companies or undertake advanced degrees and technical schooling. Others make it back a bit battered, a bit broken, and learn to work with their new normal.
I see how determined, intelligent and amazing these veterans are, and they give me hope. I feel sure that other veterans and their families, assisting each other and accessing the help that is available to them, will lead the lives they were meant to. I learned about Esprit de Corps at seventeen and it will be with me always, as I pay it forward into the world. I still see it in the eyes of brand new Marines, and it is present when I visit places like Arlington.
I hope that someday my son’s invisible wounds begin to heal and that he can make the journey that I have, paying respects to the men he fought with, side by side. I look forward to the day when he can put to rest the memories that haunt him. I know that someday he will also rest here. I pray that it won’t be too soon.