Notre Dame on fire ...
WASHINGTON, D.C.-Section 60 is a long way from Mary Custis Lee's rose garden where Union Army Pvt. William Christman, the first soldier to be interned at Arlington, is buried. Head south from the visitors center on tree-lined Eisenhower Drive, and never mind the map. It makes Section 60 look a block away when in fact it's several thousands of gravesites away. The walk is long and the quiet of the dead is very loud.
From behind and out of some forgotten era comes the clip-clop, clip-clop of an approaching caisson: Horses at respectful pace are pulling a flag-draped coffin atop an open wagon beneath the leafy shade.
Nearly 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in the United States, and the caisson platoon at Arlington National Cemetery is up before dawn, spending hours polishing tackle and dressing the horses. They hold an average of 30 burials a day here at perhaps the nation's most hallowed ground.
Over 300,000 military heroes (including Generals George C. Marshall and Omar Bradley) rest here. On a morning walk we watch three funeral processions make their way beneath the tree canopy, one with a riderless horse bringing up the rear, signifying an officer with the rank of colonel or higher.
We are not here to honor those long-ago heroes or those with distinguished careers. We are in search of the newly fallen: the Purple Hearts of Iraq and Afghanistan. Their burial ground begins at Section 60 and stretches beyond, where the clipped lawn gives way to a patchwork of dirt and grass, the ground too frequently overturned for seed to sprout. Permanent gravestones in the last few rows yield to temporary markers, their dates of death revealing soldiers killed in action only days before.
But it is their dates of birth that are more arresting: 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987. These sons and daughters could be my sons and daughters, they could be my college-aged childrens' friends or one day their paramedic, their policeman, their childrens' favorite teacher or the buddy with all the good war stories.
At Site 8410 of Section 60 we find one we've been looking for: U.S. Army Cpl. Matthew Phillip Wallace, born Dec. 27, 1983, died July 21, 2006, recipient of a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and of this simple epitaph: "Loved by all."
Wallace was on patrol with his unit in Baghdad, the top gunner on a Bradley fighting vehicle, when it was struck by in IED (improvised explosive device) July 16. The explosion killed one soldier and left Wallace with second- and third-degree burns on 90 percent of his body. He received treatment at a U.S. medical facility in Iraq before he was flown to Landstuhl, Germany. His family was on vacation at the Outer Banks, celebrating the engagement of Wallace's sister, when they got the news. With the help of their Maryland church and the U.S military, the family made its way to Germany and was able to be at his bedside when he died five days later.
His mother's best friend, Maryland resident Louise Korade, wrote a letter to WORLD last summer. Its graciousness in thanking us for a story on soldiers in Wallace's 4th Infantry Division did but partially conceal a tempered grief. Wallace, best friends with Korade's son Mat since the boys were 4 years old, spoke in his letters "of being torn between confidence in Christ and his mission, and the horrors of his daily life. This awareness, along with the bombardment of negative news reports, wears heavy on the minds and hearts of those with a loved one overseas," she said.
Korade has contended with the grief of her friend, her son, and with her own. "Having your best friend call you from Wal-Mart sobbing because she walked down an aisle and saw her son's favorite cologne is heart-wrenching beyond words. The last two years have been filled with moments like that for all of us," she said. Her own son Mat has lost "the person he would have leaned on most to get through such a nightmare." Mat bought two tickets to a Tool concert but wound up attending the concert alone and leaving the extra ticket on Wallace's tombstone.
For this generation and this Memorial Day, this is the blood that speaks. Their blood cries to us from the ground like the blood of Abel: Tell us your story, we ask, so we won't forget. It leaves us weak and ready for the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word (Hebrews 12:24).