I wish every American could spend an hour in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. My last visit was May 11, and like every trip, it was a profound experience.
Although the entire cemetery is filled with heroes, Section 60 carries urgent relevance because so many warriors from Americas post- Sept. 11, 2001, conflicts rest there. With each visit to the hallowed sector, one will tragically find new temporary grave markers bearing the names of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan.
Behind each marker and headstone is a story of sacrifice. One of the first resting spots I encountered on the warm, sunny Friday afternoon was 1st Lt. Tyler Parten, whose grave was recently moved to Arlington. The 24-year-old Marianna, Ark., soldier was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 10, 2009.
As I stared at Partens white headstone, with total silence filling the cemetery except for the occasional plane taking off from nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, all I could see was his mothers face. I had met Lona Parten in a Birmingham, Ala., restaurant in January 2011, and seeing her anguish, as well as her commitment to driving forward in Tylers honor, is a constant source of motivation.
Lonas surviving son and his wife are deployed overseas. Let us all hope and pray for their safe return.
The next grave I visited was Maj. Megan McClung, the high-est- ranking female Marine officer to be killed during the war in Iraq. She died alongside Army Capt. Travis Patriquin, 32, and Spc. Vincent Pomante III, 22, when an enemy improvised explosive device blew up in Ramadi.
Under McClungs name and dates of birth and death April 14, 1972, and Dec. 6, 2006, respectively is her extraordinary mantra: Be bold. Be brief. Be gone.
Having written and spoken about Megan as well as meeting her father and brother and speaking to her mother by telephone, I feel like I knew this remarkable woman. But I didnt. I just miss her, and wish everyone particularly young women knew the story of this world-class athlete, scholar and patriot.
Two days before Megans death, America lost Spc. Ross McGinnis, whose headstone is engraved in gold. Thats because the 19-year-old Pennsylvania native was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor the nations highest military decoration for using his body to cover a live grenade that was thrown into his vehicle in Baghdad. He left behind his loving parents and siblings, but also saved the lives of all four soldiers riding with him.
When Ross McGinnis was in kindergarten, a teacher asked him to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up, President George W. Bush said in an emotional White House ceremony June 2, 2008. He drew a soldier.
As I walked quietly through the long cemetery grass, I saw a man and woman sitting on lawn chairs under the twilight sky. They were at the grave of Army Cpl. Joseph M. Hernandez.
While I didnt want to intrude on their grief, I said the only five words I could think of while passing by: Im sorry for your loss.
Thank you, the grieving woman graciously replied.
Upon returning home, I learned that Hernandez, 24, of Hammond, Ind., was killed in action alongside Maj. Brian Mescall, 33, and Sgt. Jason Parsons, 24, on Jan. 9, 2009, in Afghanistans Zabul province. He left behind his wife, two young boys, his parents and two brothers.
Somebody who knew this soldier thanked me for caring. Today, I want to thank Cpl. Joseph M. Hernandez and his two fellow soldiers for having the courage and bravery to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
I have never sacrificed anything. Over the past decade, thousands of brave men and women, including many buried in Section 60, have risked everything to ensure we live in a safer world than the one that seethed with hatred and fear on Sept. 11, 2001.
After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on a previous generations day of infamy, Nov. 22, 1963, an eternal flame was lit at his Arlington National Cemetery resting place. A short walk away is Section 60, where a new greatest generation has ensured that freedoms candle will always flicker.
THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR:
The Seven Days Battle
The Seven Days Battles opened this week 150 years ago in the Civil War.
The weeklong series of battles consolidated the rise of starring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and proved influential in shaping the remaining course of the war.
On June 25, 1862, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan sent his combat forces marching toward Richmond, intent on putting the Confederate capital within range of his siege guns.
The Associated Press reported in a June 25 dispatch that the fighting was fierce as Union troops met with a most determined resistance in its Confederate foes.
The ground fought for was a swamp, with thick underbrush, AP noted. In such terrain, McClellans push was not enough, and Lee went on the offensive the next day. His battle plan succeeded in pushing back federal troops, forcing McClellans fighters to withdraw southeast along the Chickahominy River.
On June 27, 1862, Union troops clashed with Confederate forces at the major Battle of Gaines Mill. There, after hours of afternoon fighting, Lee hurled his combined forces in an all-out attack that forced Union rivals to retreat. It was his first sweeping tactical victory. But it came at a great cost in lives.
The 15,000 estimated casualties at Gaines Mill marked the deadliest and largest battle in the East to date. More fighting followed on June 30, 1862, at Savages Station. And on June 30, 1862, Confederate forces engaged in close combat with Union forces, unsuccessfully trying to cut their retreat to the James River.
July 1, 1862, would see the last and deadliest battle of the Seven Days at Malvern Hill, where Confederate forces were unable to withstand withering fire from Union forces hunkered down on high ground.
Strategically, Lee was hailed as a hero for successfully defending Richmond, leaving McClellans months-long bid to take Richmond in disarray.
Tom Sileo is a syndicated columnist. His Unknown Soldiers columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and appear in the Centre Daily Times on Fridays. Follow his posts on Facebook and his blog at www.unknownsoldiersblog.com.