Thursday, April 24, 2008

Those are our Gardens of Stone

My Dad - who was laid to rest with full military honors at his passing - used to tell a story about a walk he took through Arlington one day during a military funeral for a senior officer who served during WW I. He was wearing civvies, and a sentry approached him from a couple of sections away and asked if he was supposed to be there. My Dad - who had a wicked sense of humor and a perpetual impish grin - looked at him and said "Not yet, Son."

I tell that story because there is not a lot of levity at Arlington.

It is hallowed, sacred ground.

You buy the plot, alright - but you pay with your most precious coin. So does the nation. When someone is laid to rest at Arlington - or any of the national cemeteries - we all paid the price because we lost a member of our society who can truly be called the best among us - those who stepped up to make the ultimate sacrifice and laid down their life for something bigger than themselves.

Those are our Gardens of Stone, and we pay a steep price for them. We have the right to know when the best among us are laid to rest.

If it was up to me, military funerals would be handled exactly the opposite of the way they are managed and controlled today. If it was my call, every funeral of every service member killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be televised and all programming interrupted for the service, provided the grieving family gives their consent.

Yesterday, one of the highest ranking members of the military to fall in Iraq, Lt. Colonel Billy Hall, was laid to rest at Arlington, but you would never know it the way the Pentagon sanitized the service.

It is a big damned deal when an O-5 falls in battle. Billy Hall was 38 years old and likely destined to hoist his flag. Two little girls, ages three and six, lost their father and two little boys lost their stepfather. His men lost their commander and the Marines lost a seasoned officer. His death (and every death in Iraq, for that fact) is a tragedy that should have the entire nation wailing in grief. His grieving family authorized press coverage, but the Pentagon wasn't having any part of it.

Instead, the press was kept at bay. Photographs had to be shot from 50 yards away. The only sounds the press could hear were of the 21-gun-salute, echoing off of row upon row of all those perfectly aligned, lifeless white headstones.

That's a shame, because Hall's story is a moving reminder that the war in Iraq, forgotten by much of the nation, remains real and present for some. Among those unlikely to forget the war: 6-year-old Gladys and 3-year-old Tatianna. The rest of the nation, if it remembers Hall at all, will remember him as the 4,011th American service member to die in Iraq, give or take, and the 419th to be buried at Arlington. Gladys and Tatianna will remember him as Dad.

The two girls were there in Section 60 yesterday beside grave 8,672 -- or at least it appeared that they were from a distance. Journalists were held 50 yards from the service, separated from the mourning party by six or seven rows of graves, and staring into the sun and penned in by a yellow rope. Photographers and reporters pleaded with Arlington officials.

"There will be a yellow rope in the face of the next of kin," protested one photographer with a large telephoto lens.

"This is the best shot you're going to get," a man from the cemetery replied.

"We're not going to be able to hear a thing," a reporter argued.

"Mm-hmm," an Arlington official answered.

The distance made it impossible to hear the words of Chaplain Ron Nordan, who, an official news release said, was leading the service. Even a reporter who stood surreptitiously just behind the mourners could make out only the familiar strains of the Lord's Prayer. Whatever Chaplain Nordan had to say about Hall's valor and sacrifice were lost to the drone of airplanes leaving National Airport.

The shrouding of military funerals is not coming from the cemeteries and their administrators - the administrator at Arlington has pushed to allow more press access to funerals, but the Pentagon refuses. It is all part of the Bushification of this godforsaken, unholy clusterfuck of awar - sanitize it and sterilize it and don't show the public the grief on the faces of the survivors. Don't show the tears of the wife and the children, the devastation on their faces.

No, instead we are supposed to go shopping.

The military is at war, but America is at the mall.

Do you have any idea how fucked up that sounds to those of us who have first-hand experience in service and sacrifice?

I have to go have a good cry now - I didn't know Lt. Colonel Hall, but I admire and respect him, I feel the loss of his leadership, and the pain of his wife and children.

And if you aren't wailing in grief over his death, what the hell are you even doing reading this blog?

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