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Families of war dead are one in Arlington's Section 60

| Sunday, July 4, 2010

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The woman in the green dress walks alone on the grass beside York Drive, past rows of white stones warmed by an early afternoon sun.

The widows, parents and siblings of those buried here in Arlington National Cemetery do not recognize her. They watch discreetly, never looking directly at her for long, and measure the freshness of her grief by the number of rows she passes.

She turns right at the last full row of Section 60, where the grass is young, gathers her dress around her and sits before a headstone. Tears roll beneath her sunglasses, and she begins to whisper to the stone.

The others want to offer comfort, but there are unspoken rules. When she makes eye contact, someone will go to her, put a hand on her hunched shoulder, and say what someone else once said to them, that it only seems as if she's here alone. The conversation will end with an offer of a phone number and an e-mail address for her to use anytime.

She keeps her eyes on the name carved into the stone, so they let her be alone.

This section of the cemetery, where white-gloved hands deliver the war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan, bustles. Families bring folding chairs and spread picnic lunches on blankets over graves. They place balloons, cards, flowers, photographs, crayon drawings at the base of the headstones; at one, a McDonald's cheeseburger, and at another, a small bottle of bourbon. Children weave through the white rows, some at play, others shuffling slowly, their eyes on the thick grass.

The families mingle as neighbors, sharing updates, cakes and sodas.

"It is an awful beautiful," says Elizabeth Belle, 55, of Fairfax, Va.

Her son, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Cain Kirven, joined the Marine Corps shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, at age 17. She had to sign the papers.

"He said, 'I'm doing this for you.' We were so proud of him."

He died in a firefight in Alishang, Afghanistan, on Mother's Day in 2005. He was 21.

"You don't remember the funeral. You don't remember any of it," says Sheryl McIlvaine, 29, of Purcellville, Va. Her husband, Sgt. James McIlvaine, died April 30, 2009, in Al Anbar province, Iraq. They have a son, Michael, 7, and a daughter, Alexa, 3.

For families, returning here becomes a routine, replacing weekend phone calls or dinners together.

Elizabeth and Michael Belle, Kirven's stepfather, bring their dogs. One trots through the rows and lies down beside his headstone long before the Belles get there.

John Grieco Jr. places a zippered satchel beside the grave of his nephew, Staff Sgt. Kevin Grieco. Inside are a toothbrush, a wooden-handled scrub brush, fertilizer pellets and a pair of scissors with purple handles. "My Arlington bag," he says.

Kevin Grieco's grandfather, World War II veteran and Army Capt. John Grieco, was buried a few rows away in 2006.

"He walked these grounds," says Grieco, 56, of Dumfries, Va.

Grieco learned about his nephew's death the night it happened, Oct. 27, 2008. When he hung up the phone, he remembered the newscast he had watched hours before, with a video of an explosion somewhere in Afghanistan. He searched the TV network's website and found the story. It said "Baghlan" and "police station" and "suicide bomber."

He realizes he watched Kevin die. "There were a lot of soldiers around him. It wasn't like he was alone."

"I didn't know whether to tell his parents," Grieco says. His nephew lived in Bartlett, Ill., and turned 35 two days before he died with Sgt. Nicholas Casey, 22, of Canton, Ohio.

The two men prevented the bomber from entering the police station.

Kneeling at the grave, Grieco pulls the scissors from his bag and snips the grass edging the headstone. He doesn't want lawn mowers getting close enough to chip it.

This place, closest to those they lost, shields families from painful reminders of what's missing in their lives. Maria Kelly can bring her children here on weekends to visit the grave of their father, Army National Guard Col. Paul Kelly. But she cannot bring herself to open his foot locker, 3 1/2 years after he died.

She almost did last month, as she packed up to move out of the house they had built. Alone in their bedroom, she unclasped the latch and began raising the lid.

"It's like a wound," she says.

Her heart thumped. She saw a corner of the light green shirt he wore the day they met. She could not spare the energy for this while preparing for the move and being a single parent to their children, Paul, 12, and J.J., 9. She shut the lid.

Iraqi insurgents shot down the Blackhawk helicopter carrying Kelly and 11 others on Jan. 20, 2007. Not far from his grave, a memorial marker lists the 12 who died that day, the deadliest day for the National Guard since the Korean War. When Maria Kelly, a former Air Force nurse, dies, she will be buried with him, a short walk from Fort Myer, where they met and married.

"It was a good marriage, a wonderful life," says Kelly, 50, of Stafford, Va.

Some of the things the soldiers leave behind cannot be locked away.

Sheryl McIlvaine closed on her house Sept. 24, the day James would have turned 27. Kevin Grieco's niece, Meadow Rose Grieco Birch, was born in June 2009 on the day he was supposed to come home.

McIlvaine moved her husband's clothes into a bedroom closet, and when nights become difficult, she falls asleep wearing one of his shirts.

Other times, memories come unbidden.

Susan Kimmel, 56, of Norman, Okla., boarded a plane to visit the grave of her son, Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Nyren, a former Army recruiter in Pittsburgh who died in Baghdad three days after Christmas 2004. A woman on the airplane asked how many children she had. She wept.

"You embrace it. You learn to live with it," Kimmel says.

Families here know what to ask and what to leave unsaid, so Nicki Bunting lets her older son, Connor, 2, play with the other children, unafraid one might hurt him with an innocent question about his father, Capt. Brian Bunting.

"Connor went through a little phase right after," Bunting says. Though too young to understand death, he could "tell life has changed, and things are chaotic, and Mommy's sad."

Connor wants answers, but she tries not to say too much. Yes, we can visit him. No, he can't come back.

"I don't want to hurt him in any way," she says. So each time he asks, she lets out a little more. "Daddy's gone" becomes "Daddy's in heaven."

Outside Section 60, people are less careful, and Connor listens to their conversations. He mentions "the bad guys." His mother didn't tell him about them, and she's frustrated that he knows. Connor is finding his own way from his home in Darnstown, Md., to a street in Kandahar where his father drove past a parked car full of explosives Feb. 24, 2009.

He'll ask harder questions that she'll have to answer. Yes, he had a reason. No, it's not fair. Yes, it matters.

Her younger son, Cooper, 7 months, never met his father. Nicki and Brian wanted another child, and they scheduled his final two-week R&R to give them the best chance.

Four days after a casualty assistance officer stood at her doorstep and removed his hat, she learned she was pregnant. For four days, the family could not smile. Suddenly, they couldn't stop.

Nicki Bunting was 6 when her father died. "I know that it can be OK," she says.

Connor and Cooper will grow up knowing that their father, a 2002 graduate of West Point, lived and died a hero, she says. When they can understand, she will teach them the difference between loss and sacrifice. "They're going to be OK. I'm going to make sure of that."

Nearby, Michael McIlvaine picks up Connor and waddles awkwardly toward family members gathered at Brian Bunting's grave. Sheryl McIlvaine tells her son to be careful. Nicki Bunting smiles and gives her a wave to say they're fine.

Though Section 60 offers shelter, it is built from loss.

"You think you can come here and it will be OK, but it's not. It's a headstone," Kimmel says.

Rick Tieman needs to believe a headstone is enough. His son, Staff Sgt. Richard James Tieman, joined the Army at 18, the latest in a bloodline dating to Gen. George Washington's Continental Army. The first men to serve joined for revolution and the promise of 50 acres in payment. Later, one was a doughboy in World War I. Four others served in the Navy, one in the Army. Rick Tieman served in Desert Storm.

Their American thread winds through Winona, Minn., where Richard James Tieman's great-grandfather helped found St. Mary's Church. Rick Tieman and his son planned their annual trip there, to fish and to see their ancestor's name in the church's stained glass.

Richard James Tieman married Paulina, a fellow staff sergeant, in April and died May 18 in a car bombing in Kabul with another soldier, three officers and 12 Afghan civilians. He was 28 and had no children.

A small, black metal rectangle marked Richard James Tieman's bare grave on Father's Day.

The stone and grass will come. Families whose funerals were just a few years ago pause at the rows added since, as Rick Tieman one day likely will do. Each new row makes the previous one seem a little more normal. The robins, once fearful of this unfamiliar patch of the 146-year-old cemetery, have begun building nests in young trees beside the graves of Section 60.

Rick Tieman plants a small American flag and a note to his boy on either side of the spot where his headstone soon will stand. He rises and walks toward York Drive, past thousands of markers like the one that will bear his son's name.

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Additional Information:

Arlington National Cemetery

Pvt. William Henry Christman, of the 67th Pennsylvania infantry, was the first to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Since his interment May 13, 1864, more than 300,000 others were buried on the grounds around a mansion once owned by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Brig. In 1864, Gen. Montomery Meigs designated the land around the mansion a cemetery so Lee could not return home.

Those buried include soldiers from every U.S. war, presidents William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy, and grave digger James Parks. A slave freed from Arlington Estate, Parks dug Arlington's first graves and is the only person born and buried on cemetery grounds.

The 3rd U.S. Infantry, the Army's oldest active duty infantry unit, escorts funerals at the cemetery and maintains a round-the-clock vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Known as the Old Guard, this unit conducts military ceremonies at the White House.

Additional Information:

Arlington by the numbers

4,000,000 visitors annually

39 faith insignias

28 funerals a day

10 Revolutionary War veterans, reburied

8 Supreme Court justices

4 Supreme Court chief justices

3 servicemen in the Tomb of the Unknowns

Source: Arlington National Cemetery

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