Home, if that’s the word for it, to untold numbers from California’s Central Valley. Some, like Capra, a native of Hanford, died in Iraq. Others, like McGar, from the Modesto area, vanished in Vietnam long ago.
Arlington National Cemetery. It’s not just one burial ground for America’s war dead among many. It’s special, and on Veterans Day it comes alive like no other. At the gravesites of the Central Valley’s war dead, while President Barack Obama was speaking not too far distant, there was intimate visitation and remembrance. There was communion, both unspeakably sad and unexpectedly buoyant.
“We get it,” Washington, D.C.-area resident Paula Davis said. “We understand.”
Davis was standing in Section 60, the resting place for many casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan. Her son, Justin, died in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, in 2006. His gravesite is one row over from Turlock native Dale G. Brehm, an Army Ranger who died in Iraq in 2006. Nearby is the gravesite of Capra, an Air Force explosive ordinance technician killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2008.
All told, nine or so natives of the region between Redding and Bakersfield are buried in Section 60. Another, Lemoore native Otis Vincent Tolbert, lies several hundred yards away in Section 64, along with others who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
Obama’s words delivered at the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater could not be heard Monday morning in Section 60, and a scheduled visit by Vice President Joe Biden did not pan out even after security teams swept the area with bomb-sniffing dogs. Instead, Veterans Day was celebrated in smaller, less majestic ways.
At Capra’s gravesite, someone stuck a black, ominous-looking patch celebrating the world of bomb techs: “EOD Forever.” The memorial stone for John “JT” Lucente, a Grass Valley native who died in Iraq in 2005, was framed by U.S. and Marine Corps flags. An earnest-looking U.S. Naval Academy midshipman named Kieran Simonson of Indiana stood nearby and wrenched some hearts by playing the bagpipes.
“While I have a chance, I figure I should come out and do it,” Simonson said.
Others voiced the Veterans Day spirit in different ways. Near the gravesite of Merced native David Hartman, an Army sergeant first class killed by a roadside bomb in Pakistan three years ago, a squad of buff young men in civilian clothes stood in a circle as if around a campfire. They swapped yarns about someone who was gone; not all of them were strictly complimentary, which made them sound all the more true.
Elsewhere, among Arlington’s shaded folds, other valley natives reside. Some remain known only to loved ones. In quiet Section 34, there’s a gravesite for McGar that hardly does justice to the mystery of his life. The 19-year-old infantryman, a graduate of Ceres High School, disappeared while on a reconnaissance mission in 1967. His remains weren’t recovered and identified for another 30 years.
Others are famous enough to merit notice on the Arlington National Cemetery visitors’ map. Medal of Honor
recipient Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot who died in Fresno in 1988, commands a prominent spot that visitors may pass by while on the way to the Tomb of the Unknowns or nearby Memorial Amphitheater.
“On this hillside of solemn remembrance in the veteran’s halls, and proud parades across America, we join as one people to honor a debt we can never fully repay,” Obama proclaimed at the amphitheater.
Down the hillside, in the flats of Section 60, a handsome gray-haired woman was sitting quietly at the gravesite of an Air Force colonel. There was something being said in the silence, but it was not for a stranger’s ears. Several sites over, a man cleared away leaves that littered a loved one’s plot. Several rows further, Paula Davis was greeting others finding their way through the land called grief.
Late Monday morning, Davis hugged a woman who lost her husband several years ago. They first met, Davis recalled, when the other woman was “just sobbing uncontrollably, and I thought I’d go over and try to comfort her.” They caught up with each other a little bit Monday, and each praised God. They seemed momentarily as close as sisters, though afterward Davis had to struggle to remember the other woman’s first name.
“It’s a community,” Davis said. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s a real community out here.”