Commentary: A Holiday Visit to Arlington National Cemetery
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Dec. 21, 2010 I walked the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery this morning to put wreaths on the graves of two dear friends and a fallen soldier I’ve never met.
Christmas wreaths adorn the grave of Army Staff Sgt. James R. Patton at Arlington National Cemetery, Dec. 21, 2010. Patton was serving his seventh overseas deployment since 9/11 with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, when he died in a helicopter crash in Tikrit, Iraq, on April 18, 2010.
DOD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The cemetery never fails to move me, its stark white headstones standing dress-right-dress along its hills and plains for as far as the eye can see. Driving through the grand entrance gates just as they opened this morning of the winter solstice – the longest, darkest day of the year – I knew I was in for an emotional morning.
Each headstone was adorned with a holiday wreath, donated as part of the “Wreaths Across America” project. The bright red ribbons provided cheerful contrast to the cemetery’s hills and plains, much of it still blanketed with the last remnants of an early-season snow.
Walking through Section 60, the final resting place for almost 700 fallen veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, I stopped at the grave of Army Staff Sgt. James R. Patton. I’d never met “Jimmy,” as his family calls him, but I had the privilege of meeting his mother, Sheila, during a recent trip to Fort Campbell, Ky.
Jimmy, who was serving his seventh overseas deployment since 9/11 with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, died in a helicopter crash in Tikrit, Iraq, on April 18. His father, Army Command Sgt. Major Gregory Patton, who is deployed to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, accompanied his son’s body home for the funeral, then left to rejoin his unit. Sheila Patton, despite all she’s dealt with during the past year, has stood as a font of courage and inspiration to everyone whose lives she has touched.
“I am a proud momma of a soldier who died fighting for his country and doing what he loved doing,” she told me. “If he had to die before us, that is the only way we could ever have accepted his death: to smile and be proud and honored that God thought enough of my son to make him a hero.”
But despite Sheila’s seemingly Teflon composure, I know this Christmas will be a particularly painful one.
As I stood at Jimmy’s grave, I looked around me and took in the majesty of Arlington National Cemetery. In every direction, I saw reminders that other families, like the Pattons, will be feeling the loss of a loved one this Christmas.
Many had visited their husband’s, wife’s, father’s, mother’s, son’s, daughter’s, brother’s, sister’s gravesite, leaving behind personal and very individual tributes.
Some had left simple holiday memorials: a festive floral arrangement, a miniature Christmas tree, a wrapped gift box.
Others were more elaborate. The grave of Army Cpl. Christopher John-Lee "C.J." West, an 82nd Airborne Division soldier killed in Iraq in February 2004, featured two American flags, a large Styrofoam snowman, a set of felt reindeer antlers and a sweatshirt of West’s beloved Dallas Cowboys.
Two bright balloons flew over the grave of Sgt. Alberto Montrond, a 7th Special Forces Group soldier killed in Afghanistan in February 2006. At the base of his headstone, next to a wreath, was a plate with two holiday cupcakes.
A large floral arrangement with a ribbon proclaiming, “Rangers Lead the Way,” adorned Army Cpl. Ryan Casey McGhee’s grave. The 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, soldier was killed in Iraq in May 2009.
His mother had left behind a hand-written Christmas card, telling her son that although she thinks of him every day, the holidays are going to be especially tough.
He won’t be there to open gifts with his family, to share in a holiday toast, or even to call from a faraway deployment to tell them he loves them. And the empty seat at the dinner table will forever be a reminder of what they’ve lost.
As I left Arlington and headed off to work, I felt a deep sense of sadness over how much so many have sacrificed.
But then I remembered Sheila Patton, and the selfless gift she and so many others like her have given me and every other American.
Merry Christmas, Gold Star families. I wish you – and all of us -- peace on earth.