Section 60

The Dead Patriots and the Commander in Chief

Only a president can send people off to fight and perhaps die in distant lands for often undefined cause.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/Getty

ARLINGTON, Virginia—A pale winter sun broke through the morning cloud cover Thursday and there was little wind off the river as the city in the near distance prepared to witness the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States of America.

But, here, in Section 60 of our most storied national cemetery, time does not move for men and women whose courage and commitment caused them to be buried within 14 acres of ground reserved for those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yesterday, an old man stood like a sentry by a gravestone and after a few moments silently saluted before slowly walking away, shoulders hunched. A hundred yards from the old man a young woman held a child’s hand and whispered something to the little girl who then touched the grave stone softly as the woman dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex.

There were men and women here from California and Ohio and Texas and so many other states. They are of many different ages, backgrounds, nationalities, and religions and they are here forever because a single individual called upon them to serve in wars that no Congress declared and only a president could command them to fight. They are part of a small platoon of patriots in a country where fewer than 1 percent wear the uniform and spend their tour keeping America great and safe.

Grave site 7986 contains the remains of a 27-year-old Army Captain named Humayun Khan. He was killed on June 8, 2004, in Iraq by a suicide bomber. He died trying to save the lives of the troopers he commanded. He was buried at Arlington nine days later.

This past summer his parents, Khizr Khan and the dead captain’s mother Ghazala, attended a political convention in Philadelphia where the father spoke to the nation about his son and the country he served. The father’s words created a storm and the Republican candidate for president skewered the dead soldier’s parents with his weapon of choice, Twitter.

Grave site 7985 is to the left of Captain Khan’s resting place. It belongs to Marine Lance Corporal Jeremiah Savage of Livingston, Tennessee. He was killed on May 12, 2004, in Iraq. He was 21 years old and left a wife and a 2-month-old son whom he never saw.

To Captain Khan’s right is grave site 7987, the final home of Army Sgt Robert J. Mogensen, 26 years old when he was killed in Afghanistan on May 29, 2004. He was from Leesville, Louisiana, and had a wife and three children, the youngest, a girl, who was 8 weeks old when the father she will never know died for a country that sent him to a war still being fought all these years later.

To walk Section 60, to simply stop and see loved ones who stroll softly across the hard winter earth to stand quietly by a grave, saying a prayer, staring at the stone and then the clouds above is to think about one of the most important aspects of the Republic: Only a president can send people off to fight and perhaps die in distant lands for often undefined cause.

Here in Section 60 words and slogans and politics are all without meaning. Grief and memory mix in the morning air. A mother stands by a stone, shuts her eyes and sees the smile of a little boy who grew up to honor a uniform. A father remembers a kid on a baseball field. A wife can still feel a husband’s last and now lost embrace. A child sees a hole in his life, an empty chair around a table. All of those who remain in Section 60 when night falls, visitors leave, and the gates are locked, spent their final days trying to keep America great.

By mid-afternoon Thursday the president-elect had landed at Andrews Air Force Base. He then attended a lavish luncheon at a downtown hotel bearing his name before heading across Memorial Bridge to Arlington where he and the vice president-elect participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of The Unknown. Their motorcade took them past the Vietnam Memorial, another war, like Iraq, fought under false pretense.

And today at noon, Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office and become the 45th president of the United States. Then, for the first time, he might well realize that his most important obligation is to be aware of the fact that only he can add to the names carved on war memorials and cemetery headstones because he now carries the burden, the weight and responsibility of being commander in chief. That is his duty, to honor the dead by never forgetting their sacrifice or the failed politics that sent them to die.