Follow the Flowers, Follow the Kisses: Visiting Section 60

Photo: National Geographic

Photo: National Geographic

I knew that I would be emotional when going to the cemetery. My father was in the Naval Reserves, then went to Officer Candidate School - where he was being readied and trained to be deployed to Afghanistan. I remember him being away from home for weeks, then coming back with his head fully shaved. I also remember sitting on his lap on one of his return trips, and asking if he was going to die. He told me he wasn’t, but I was seven at the time and very scared.

He aged out of the program only a few months before his class was commissioned as Army Officers. My father told me that one of his biggest regrets in life is not serving his country. He doesn’t consider himself a veteran, but I still see him as one.

Upon entering Arlington Cemetery and passing row after row of white headstones, I couldn’t help but think of my father. I saw each of those white headstones as a person, with a family and a life. Seeing the smattering of headstones engraved with “His Wife” only cemented this feeling.

As I approached Section 60, I thought I was in the wrong place - many of the headstones by the main road were from Vietnam and Korea. But I continued to walk towards the far corner, where I saw an increasing amount of headstones adorned with flowers. These headstones were engraved with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Afghanistan.” I knew I was in the right place then.

The ones with the lipstick kisses stood out the most. I approached one with a very fresh, vibrantly red one right on top of the headstone - which couldn’t have been more than a day old. Sticking up on the back of the headstone was a picture of a handsome-faced fellow with blonde hair and blue eyes - the most Americana, guy next door you could think of. I walked around to the front of the headstone, and saw about ten more faded red kisses on the front, around an engraving that read: Cpl. US Army Benjamin Stephen Kopp.

Photo: Arlington National Cemetery Website

Photo: Arlington National Cemetery Website

Benjamin was born on January 20th, 1988 and died on July 18th, 2009. He was 21. He was serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, and that was his first tour in the country after two in Iraq. He was from Rosemount, Minnesota, went to Rosemount High School, and left for Fort Benning just one month after he graduated. When he was born, he wasn’t breathing - but somehow managed to survive. According to his mother, “he came into the world a fighter.”

On July 10th, Benjamin was shot in the knee in Helmand province - with the bullet hitting his secondary femoral artery. He received immediate medical attention and was taken to surgery, but the excessive blood loss caused him to go into cardiac arrest mid-surgery. Doctors were able to resuscitate him after cutting open his chest, and they continued with the procedure.

Unfortunately, Benjamin never woke up from surgery, and remained in that condition while being transferred to Walter Reed. He stayed in a medically-induced coma as his brain was swelling due to the blood loss and accumulating damage due to lack of oxygen. Doctors determined that his chance of survival was slim, and his quality of life would be poor if he did survive. His mother decided to let him go.

After his death, his organs were donated - and his heart was a perfect match for a woman named Judy Meikle. After his death, Benjamin was able to give a woman life. When I first saw his headstone, I was certain that the kisses were from a girlfriend or wife - but now I’m certain that they were from his mother. I walked away from that headstone completely in awe by the many lipstick kisses. I thought, who could love someone that much?

Photo: McClatchy DC

Photo: McClatchy DC

The next headstone that caught my eye was one decorated with six fresh yellow roses. I also noticed that the headstone was engraved with a crescent and star - standing out from the rows of engraved crosses that came before. Below the symbol was the name: Kareem Rashad Sultan Kahn.

Upon researching this name, I saw a beautiful and tragic portrait of Kareem’s mother, embracing her son’s headstone pop up on the Google search. The flowers in the photo were also roses - perhaps they were also yellow.

Photo:  Platon Photo

Kareem was born on February 12th, 1987 and died on August 6th, 2007 - meaning he was twenty years old when he died. He fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a specialist, and earned the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Like Benjamin, Kareem enlisted in the military soon after he graduated high school. According to a news clip from Gannett News Service, he was “spurred by the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center [and] wanted to show that not all Muslims were fanatics and that many, like him, were willing to lay their lives down for their country, America.” While clearing an abandoned house with three others in Baquba, an explosive was detonated - killing all four men.

Photo: The News Tribune

Photo: The News Tribune

He also was mentioned by Colin Powell on Meet The Press in 2008, using Kareem as an example against anti-Muslim sentiments. Powell noted that Kareem “was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could go serve his country, and he gave his life.” According to The New York Times, Kareem had served in Iraq for a little over a year when he died, and “he had sent home pictures to his family of him playing soccer with Iraqi children and hugging a smiling young Iraqi boy in Baghdad.” The Newark-Star Ledger wrote, “He spent much of his leave playing with his 11-year-old sister, Aliya. He also went to her school and talked to her class. […] He envisioned a family vacation to a place where he could snowboard. And he wanted to buy his sister a dog. Maybe a husky.”

The next grave that caught my eye was the only one in the large field that was decorated with balloons. By this time, I was at the very far corner of Section 60, creeping up to the deaths of the present day. I turned to the front of the headstone, and saw the date of birth was March 31st, 1996 - the same year I was born. I broke down and started to cry.

His name was Jerrod Jay Craddock Jr. He was a Lance Corporal in the Marines. He died on July 16th 2016, and he was twenty. He was only two months older than me.

Jerrod’s obituary from The Washington Post was not informative - giving me no insights on how he passed, his relations with his family, or how he lived. I had better luck with an online guestbook, with relatives and friends leaving messages that vaguely reminisced on better times.

I stood in front of Jerrod’s grave for a while, thinking of him as a guy my age who died in combat. I just couldn’t believe that someone who was my age could be buried in Arlington like that. I cried in shock, in mourning. I didn’t even realize that the other graves I had visited were also my age until I went back to research and was able to absorb the dates. Something about seeing my birth year on a gravestone shook me.

I walked around a bit more in the far corner after paying respects to Jerrod. I saw more young graves. More flowers. More kisses. These men and women were incredibly loved, even when their earthly presence was no longer. These people kept coming back because they loved their memories with them, and they loved their souls. Those who died still lived - in the flowers and the kisses.

I decided to pay respects to Jerrod once more before I left Section 60. On my walk back to that corner, I saw a man set up a mat in front of a gravestone, sit, and start speaking to it - just talking. The man was talking to his wife. The grave sat only ten gravestones away from Jerrod’s final resting place. I stood in silence, holding back tears as best I could. The man continued to speak to his wife. The sun was shining, the breeze was pleasant, and I was overcome with sadness and grief. I soon walked away from Jerrod and the man, from his words to the wind and the balloons - I thought, how could someone love someone else that much?

I passed the rows and rows of white gravestones once more walking back to where I came, and I saw hoards of tourists near the entrance. I suddenly felt bitter. While a man was speaking to the last earthy remnant of his wife, these droves of people were being so loud and obnoxious. I had experienced something so emotionally touching at Section 60 - being greeted with DC’s springtime tourists was another shock.

Once I left the cemetery grounds, I immediately called my dad. I wanted to tell him everything that I saw and felt, and I wanted to let him know that I thought of him. He didn’t pick up. When I finally got a hold of him later that day, I told him about Jerrod, the balloons, and the man. I told him about the flowers and the kisses. I told him that I loved him.