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Arlington Visit Brings Casualties Home

Wreaths are placed at graves as part of Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. on Dec. 12. More than 16,000 wreaths were placed at graves throughout the cemetery. (AP)
Wreaths are placed at graves as part of Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. on Dec. 12. More than 16,000 wreaths were placed at graves throughout the cemetery. (AP)

When I visited Arlington National Cemetery recently, I was overwhelmed by the scale of loss. Acre after acre of white marble markers, stretching out over those beautiful Virginia grounds.

Then I heard a volley of rifles, which signaled a military funeral, and the scale of loss narrowed down to just one person. A father, a mother, a sister, a brother, a friend. Another casualty. Another folded flag.

Just about every day, while I'm sitting at my computer here at WBUR, messages from the Department of Defense pop up in my e-mail. Their slug line reads: DOD Identifies Casualty.

Here are a few of the recent messages:

  • The Department of Defense announced today the death of an airman who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Tech. Sgt. Anthony C. Campbell Jr., 35, of Florence, Ky., died Dec. 15 of wounds suffered from the detonation of an improvised explosive device in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Campbell was assigned to the 932nd Civil Engineer Squadron, Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
  • The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.Sgt. Jason A. McLeod, 22, of Crystal Lake, Ill., died Nov. 23, west of Pashmul, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with mortar fire. He was assigned to the 704th Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo.
  • The Department of Defense announced today the death of a Marine who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Cpl. Xhacob Latorre, 21, of Waterbury, Conn., died Dec. 8 of wounds sustained while supporting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

According to the Web site icasualties.org , more than 4,300 Americans have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion six years ago. More than 900 Americans have died in Afghanistan since the war started there eight years ago.

I think about the people I've met this year who are connected to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brian Turner was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. He turned the experience into poetry and is now the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholar, which requires him to travel outside the U.S. for a year. Brian, I hope you are well, wherever you are.

Erik Malmstrom is now a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He looks like your kid brother, but he served as an Army captain with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. A number of the fellow soldiers he knew there were killed.

Arlington National Cemetery in 2009. (Alex Ashlock/WBUR)
Arlington National Cemetery in 2009. (Alex Ashlock/WBUR)

Photographer David Furst works for Agence France Presse. His photo of four female Marines resting in Afghanistan sparked a conversation about women in combat, and what it's like to take pictures in a war zone.

There are other images. The pictures we were finally able to see from Dover Air Force Base. A line of hearses carrying coffins draped with the Union Jack passing through the English village of Wootton Bassett, with thousands lining the streets to pay their respects.

And then there are people connected to past wars.

Thomas Childers, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, published a tremendous book this year called "Soldier From The War Returning." It tells the story of three men who served in World War II and the troubled homecoming for each of them. One was Thomas Childers' father. The phrase "he was never the same after the war" haunts the pages of the book.

I wonder how many veterans and their families will be able to relate to that in the years to come. Or already do.

The number of Americans who have a personal connection to today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is so small that it makes me feel guilty. But as a radio producer I can bring you some of the stories of the people who do have that connection.

I promise to keep doing that in the year to come.

This program aired on December 22, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Alex Ashlock Twitter Producer, Here & Now
Alex Ashlock has been a producer for Here & Now since 2005. He started his WBUR career as senior producer of Morning Edition in 1998.

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