WASHINGTON — As throngs of friends and family members pay their respects to the fallen this Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, there is one corner of the hallowed burial ground that will receive extra attention.
Section 60 has been described as the saddest acre in America. More than 800 of the war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried here.
Arlington's green hills are blanketed with about 400,000 gravestones from all American armed conflicts, dating back to the Revolutionary War. There are thousands of graves from past conflicts in Section 60 as well.
But walking among them, one reaches the point where the dates on the stones grow much more recent. This is the leading edge of the wound, the spot where the pain of war is still raw. Where the most recently dug plots don't yet have headstones.
At least 10 of the graves in this corner of the cemetery belong to service members from Nebraska and western Iowa who were killed in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Like Master-at-Arms 1st Class John Douangdara, a South Sioux City, Neb., native killed Aug. 6, 2011, when a transport helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.
Douangdara was a Navy Special Warfare member who supported SEALs.
He was one of 30 U.S. service members killed in the crash, most of them SEALs. It was the U.S. war effort's deadliest single incident.
His sister Chan Follen remembers his burial, watching him put to rest alongside a dozen others killed in the crash. She hasn't been back since, but plans to attend a special memorial service.
Pan Douangdara of Sioux City, Iowa, has visited his brother's grave four times since the funeral.
He didn't understand why his brother would want to be buried so far from home until he saw the place, saw how his brother is surrounded by his fellow men-at-arms.
“My mom said it the best — that he went over there with these guys and he's coming back with these guys and he's laying to rest with these guys,” he said.
The trips always send Pan through an array of emotions. After flying into Norfolk, Va., near Virginia Beach, where his brother lived and many of his friends still call home, he makes the drive up to Washington, anxious but happy. He thinks back on how he and his brother would play video games as kids and run track together in junior high.
He can't believe he's visiting his brother in a cemetery, but he also feels pride and respect for everyone buried in that sacred place that honors sacrifice.
Pan stretches out on the ground next to the grave and feels better just being close to his brother.
“It's pretty much what keeps me going each day, knowing that I'm able to go see him again sometime soon,” he said. “Being out there actually just recharges my soul.”
Douangdara was a dog handler for Navy SEAL Team Six, and his dog, Bart, was killed in the crash. South Sioux City named a dog park after Douangdara, and people are raising money to build a statue there of him and his dog.
Pan always brings dog treats to leave at the gravesite, and the family encourages others visiting to do the same.
The many mementos left on the graves in Section 60 speak to how many people visit this part of the cemetery. In addition to the flowers, balloons and pinwheels, there are pictures and multicolored stones, some bearing messages that say “Thank You” and “Hero.”
Even family members who don't regularly make it to Section 60 take solace in knowing that their loved one is at rest here.
Army Capt. Joel Cahill, 33, of La Vista was killed by a roadside bomb in 2005 in Iraq. His father, Larry, hasn't been to Arlington since the funeral but likes that his son is buried down the way from Audie Murphy, the highly decorated World War II hero. Joel was killed shortly after taking over the same company Murphy once commanded.
“Arlington is just a blessing to us,” Larry Cahill said.
Sallie Allen of Bellevue travels to Washington every year during the first week of August to visit the grave of her son Army Sgt. Lonnie Calvin Allen Jr., who was 26 in 2006 when he was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb. She also visits the graves of others with ties to Nebraska who are buried near her son, including Army Capt. Russell Rippetoe.
Sallie Allen was Rippetoe's teacher when he was just a kid and his family lived in Bellevue, before the Rippetoes moved to Colorado. In 2003, he was killed by a car bomb in Iraq and was the first soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom to be buried at Arlington.
Rippetoe's family now lives in Maryland and has joined the Allens in their visits to the cemetery. Sallie Allen said her family sits around the grave and talks about Calvin, about how he was never one to keep secrets. He would tell on himself, even when he knew it meant he'd be in trouble.
“He said, ‘Well, if I tell a lie I'm going to get a beating, and if I tell the truth I'm going to get one, so I might just as well tell the truth and have one strike against me,'” his mother recalled, chuckling.
If she sees another cemetery visitor who is obviously hurting, she might approach and offer some comfort. I understand your hurt and it will get better, she will say. You won't forget, but it'll get better.
Section 60 is a place where even those who have never met, and are unlikely to talk again, can bond over shared experiences and the people they've lost.
“We talk about how they lost their lives to give us the right to do certain things,” Sallie Allen said of such conversations. “Sometimes other people don't realize the value of life that's been lost for the country.”
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