Column: In Section 60, home too soon

WASHINGTON -- On a flawless spring-like morning, President Obama stood in the Rose Garden to urge against a hasty retreat from Afghanistan. "We have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war," he said Tuesday, resisting the ...

WASHINGTON -- On a flawless spring-like morning, President Obama stood in the Rose Garden to urge against a hasty retreat from Afghanistan.

"We have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war," he said Tuesday, resisting the calls for a quick exit that were prompted by the slaying of Afghan civilians by a rogue American soldier. "Already we're scheduled to remove 23,000 troops by the end of this summer, following the 10,000 that we withdrew last year."

A few minutes after Obama spoke those words, I crossed the Potomac to visit with some of those who have already come home, under circumstances nobody wanted. After a decade of wars, more than 800 of them now rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

Most of them are in Section 60, where I counted 21 rows of headstones of the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead, beginning with Staff Sgt. Brian Craig, killed in Kandahar in April 2002. On Tuesday afternoon, Section 60 got its newest resident, 23-year-old Sgt. William Stacey, killed on foot patrol during his fourth deployment to Afghanistan.

They buried him -- near a young magnolia tree that will shade his headstone in future years -- with the too-familiar rituals: white horses, wooden caisson, marching platoon, rifle volleys, taps. There were the tearful parents, the grief-stricken fiancee, the teenage sister holding flowers, and the cremated remains of a young man who left behind an open-in-case-of-death letter released by the family.


"My death did not change the world; it may be tough for you to justify its meaning at all," he wrote. "But there is a greater meaning to it."

Washington is debating that greater meaning, and whether all the trouble -- the civilian killings, the Quran burnings, the feckless Karzai government -- justifies continued fighting in Afghanistan even though al-Qaeda has been routed and public opinion has soured. There's no good answer, but no policymaker should make a decision about the war without taking a stroll through Section 60. Its rows tell the story of this generation's wars: A few headstones from Afghanistan quickly yield to monuments mostly from Iraq; then, toward the end, the Afghanistan dead return.

Among stones topped by crosses, Stars of David and the occasional crescent, a makeshift shrine has been built by friends and family of the fallen. A helium balloon with the number "30" floated above the tombstone of Thomas J. Brown, whose 30th birthday would have been Tuesday; he died in 2008 in Iraq, and his grave had a fresh arrangement of pink roses, yellow daisies and white gladioli, with a note: "Miss you. Love always, Mom."

Arlington authorities, perhaps recognizing the special significance of Section 60's young dead, has compassionately exempted it from the policy against decorations. On Tuesday, there were purple Mardi Gras beads, crosses made from toothpicks, laminated photos, heart stickers, colored stones, pinwheels, plush toys, a can of chewing tobacco, a marathon medal, a plastic leprechaun hat, even a cat-shaped yard ornament.

A prayer to Joan of Arc decorated the grave of a young woman killed in Iraq. On the stone of Sgt. Karl Campbell were a school photo of his son, missing a front tooth, and a letter in a plastic bag, to "my best friend always."

Among the most heartbreaking is the stone of Spc. Douglas Jay Green, killed in Afghanistan in August at age 23. A Valentine's Day card had a quotation from Herman Hesse, "If I know what love is, it is because of you," and a handwritten message: "Doug, This year you would have been home for Valentine's Day. ... But I have to remind myself that 'could haves' and 'would haves' were never supposed to be."

Nearby, an older couple sat on fresh sod, grieving over a soldier buried too recently to have a headstone. They stepped aside as the caisson approached with Sgt. Stacey's remains. The young man, son of college professors, was to have returned to Camp Pendleton by now, his overseas deployments done. He was planning to attend a Marine Corps ball in April with his fiancee.

Instead, she joined Stacey's sister and parents in accepting folded flags from a sergeant major on bended knee. Among those paying their respects were several young Marines, one in a wheelchair.


In the letter he wrote before he died, Stacey imagined an Afghan child made better by his service: "If my life buys the safety of a child who will one day change this world, then I know that it was all worth it."

The nation must soon decide whether Stacey's hope remains true.

Dana Milbank's email address is .

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