Monday, May 28, 2007

Journey of Grief: Military Families Join Together at Arlington National Cemetery

This weekend's USA Today had a moving tribute to the families who come together at Arlington National Cemetery to grieve for their fallen fighters who have sacrificed for the cause of freedom:

Among the headstones of Iraq and Afghanistan war dead buried in Arlington National Cemetery is a small but growing community of broken hearts who have found one another.

Most are the mothers of dead soldiers and Marines. They make journeys of grief, spending hours at the graves writing letters, tending flowers or simply mourning in silence. As time passes, one grieving parent has reached out to another with a touch on the shoulder, a smile or a hug to build a lasting network of support.

"It's a club nobody wants to be in," says Paula Davis, who sets up her lawn chair each week at the grave of her son, Army Pfc. Justin Davis. The 19-year-old was killed in a "friendly fire" incident in Afghanistan on June 25. "But here we are," Davis says. "So we look after each other."

Grieving families look after each other at Arlington and national cemeteries throughout the country. Many will comfort each other this Memorial Day weekend. At Arlington, their spontaneous graveside meetings have evolved into more organized gatherings. A core group of about 10 family members will meet each month at the nearby Women in Military Service for America Memorial to work through their sorrows.

A similar cluster has formed in San Antonio, many members grieving for relatives buried at Sam Houston National Cemetery. "I have found a need for these families to be together," says Kim Smith, who formed the group in December. Her son, Pvt. Robert Frantz, 19, was killed in a June 2003 grenade attack.

In Portland, Ore., at the Willamette National Cemetery, Elfriede Plumondore has formed emotional connections with other grieving parents. She is there several days a week to mourn at the grave of her son, Sgt. Adam Plumondore, 22, who was killed Feb. 16, 2005, by a roadside bomb explosion in Mosul, Iraq.

"(Someone) will sit beside me. And we may not say a word. We just sit there. And we know, really know, how the other person feels. And then you hug and you get up and you continue," she says.

Similar instances of bonding have occurred at other national cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, spokeswoman Jo Schuda says.

Sixty-five of those cemeteries are open for burials and have accepted about 600 war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan, she says. As of Thursday, 3,420 U.S. troops and seven Defense Department staffers had died in Iraq; 386 troops and one Defense civilian had died in Afghanistan.

This accidental coming together on hallowed grounds acts as salve for families and friends struggling with grief, says psychologist Therese Rando, clinical director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss in Warwick, R.I.

"They got thrust into this, and they share experiences," she says. "To be able to have the support and involvement of others who have been through the same thing can be very helpful."

Beth Belle curls up near the headstone of her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven, 21, every Sunday at Arlington National Cemetery. He was killed in combat in Afghanistan on Mother's Day, 2005, and she says connecting with others caught in the same cycle of grief eases the pain.

"Somebody who has this kind of loss wants to feel that they're not alone and they're not going crazy and that someone understands," Belle says.

The article continues with information on "Section 60" at Arlington, which is not far from President Kennedy's grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

On this and every Memorial Day, I thank the millions of American families for their losses and sacrifices in furtherance of American liberty.

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