Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery

May 27, 2010 | By John Moore | Behind The Lens

Editor’s note: In May 2007, John Moore wrote the poignant blog post below sharing the story behind his award-winning image taken at the Arlington National Cemetery. In observation of Memorial Day, we thought it would be relevant to revisit his story and the comments it has generated so far.

After spending much of the last six years covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I felt like I needed to visit Arlington National Cemetery this Memorial Day weekend. I felt like I owed it some time.

I went with my family – my pregnant wife and my young daughter. Separately and together, my wife and I have covered a lot of heart-wrenching stories around the world, but Section 60 was unlike any place we had been.

The beauty and serenity of Virginia’s rolling hills and awe inspiring views of Washington D.C. clash with today’s reality of national loss, where grief is raw and in your face. You step over grass sods still taking root over freshly dug graves. You watch a mother kiss her son’s tombstone. Two soldiers put flowers and a cold beer next to the grave of a fallen buddy. A young son left a hand-written note for his dad. “I hope you like Heven, hope you liked Virginia very much hope you like the Holidays. I also see you every Sunday. Please write back!”

Section 60 is not about a troop surge or a war spending bill or whether we should be fighting these wars at all. It is about ordinary people trying to get through something so hard that most of us can’t ever imagine it. Everyone I met that afternoon had a gut-wrenching story to tell.

Mary McHugh is one of those people. She sat in front of the grave of her fiance James “Jimmy” Regan, talking to the stone. She spoke in broken sentences between sobs, gesturing with her hands, sometimes pausing as if she was trying to explain, with so much left needed to say.

Later on, after she spoke with a fellow mourner from a neighboring grave, I went over and introduced myself and told her I was photographing for Getty Images and had brought my family on our own pilgrimage to the site. I told her we had been living in Pakistan for the last few years, how we had come back to the States for a few months for the birth of our second child.

Mary told me about her slain fiance Jimmy Regan. Clearly, she had not only loved him but truly admired him. When he graduated from Duke, he decided to enlist in the Army to serve his country. He chose not to be an officer, though he could have been, because he didn’t want to risk a desk job. Instead, he became an Army Ranger and was sent twice to Aghanistan and Iraq – an incredible four deployments in just three years. He was killed in Iraq this February by a roadside bomb.

I told her how I had spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan, photographing American troops in combat. I told her that earlier this year I was a month in Ramadi and then a few more weeks in a tough spot called Helmand. I told her how I am going back to Iraq sometime this summer and that I was very sorry to see her this Memorial Day in the national cemetery, visiting a grave.

Mary said that they had planned to get married after Jimmy’s four years of service were up next year. “We loved each other so much,” she said. “We thought we had all of the time in the world.”

After a few moments more, my beautiful wife, Gretchen, now almost 9 months pregnant, walked over with our two-year-old Isabella. Our daughter started climbing over me, saying “daddy” in my ear and pulling on my arm to come walk with her. I felt awkward and guilty about the contrast, but if Mary felt it too, she was nothing but gracious and friendly. I told her that I would forward her some photos of her from that day if she would like and she gave me her email address. We said our goodbyes and I moved on with my family through the sea of graves.

Later on, I passed by and she was lying in the grass sobbing, speaking softly to the stone, this time her face close to the cold marble, as if whispering into Jimmy’s ear.

Some people feel the photo I took at the moment was too intimate, too personal. Like many who have seen the picture, I felt overwhelmed by her grief, and moved by the love she felt for her fallen sweetheart.

After so much time covering these wars, I have some difficult memories and have seen some of the worst a person can see – so much hatred and rage, so much despair and sadness. All that destruction, so much killing. And now, one beautiful and terribly sad spring afternoon amongst the rows and rows of marble stones – a young woman’s lost love.

I felt I owed the Arlington National Cemetery a little time – and I think I still do. Maybe we all do.


Mary McHugh mourns her slain fiance Sgt. James Regan at “Section 60″ of the Arlington National Cemetery May 27, 2007. Regan, a US Army Ranger, was killed by an IED explosion in Iraq in February of this year, and this was the first time McHugh had visited the grave since the funeral. Section 60, the newest portion of the vast national cemetery on the outskirts of Washington D.C, contains hundreds of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Family members of slain American soldiers have flown in from across the country for Memorial Day. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)





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  • Mike W

    I just saw the picture in an email and searched the web to find out more. It just curshed my heart to see Mary laid out on the grave as if she was trying to get to her love. May the peace of God be with her always.

  • Mike W

    Does any one know how Mary is getting along?

  • Shubha (Kandahar Airfield,Afghanistan)

    For Mary: We, the airmen,soldiers,marines,sailors fighting the war here in Afghanistan send our wishes and courage to you–as we all know how hard it must have been to overcome the irrecoverable loss of your beloved one. Ma’am, we will fight and defend, with whatever it takes, to bring peace, harmony, stability and growth in the land of Afghanistan–protecting the American soil, the American people and the US Constitution. Jimmy’s bereaved soul rests in peace, as willing by God he has deserved his place in the heaven. He watches over you, wishes for you and longs you to be happy–as he knows his untimely departure has left you in tears and sorrow. He loved you, he loves you and his love will last forever–may his soul R.I.P.

    For the McHugh family: Your son has not only lived his life once, but he has lived his life for an eternity–as every one of us, fighting the war for the US, we represent him–everyday!! Please do not grief that you’ve lost a son, but i plead you to be strong and support your other sons/daughters like us, fighting to protect and defend our freedom.

    For John: Very very touchy picture and thank you for sharing the sorrow to the rest of the world–you have helped the world understand more about the War and its outcomes. I am deeply saddened hearing about Jimmy being KIA. Kudos to your work and keep the shutter rolling. Please (if possible) convey my above messag to Mary and the McHugh family.

  • James

    I’m trying to reach John Moore over a personal matter. If you could have him email me at that would be fantastic.

  • Pasaxe

    Since I am not american I apologise for my english.

    Thank you John for your picture. Thank you for sharing with us yopur view of that moment. I am writing you from Spain, where the bond with the military is far from being as tight as yours in the States. I HOe the best for your soldiers oand ours.

    Para Mary, en español. Un beso enorme. Ni me imagineo el dolor que pasaste. Espero que tu vida sea feliz y plena.

  • Aaron

    The photograph and the background story made the impact of the photo immensely moving. Iraq War was and remains the wrong war to prosecute. American and European citizens are never meant to be expedient for selfish geopolitical motives. 50,000 American G.I. died in Vietnam War, and yet it was a futile and pointless war to ostensibly fight and eradicate the domino theory of Communism and other perceived evils.

    Sacrifice is seen as a sign of valor, but we must seek justice against those who commit corruption and perfidy. George Washington and other founding fathers have warned against intervention in foreign affairs, and yet we have to fight the wars begun by influential policymakers and factions that only see the military as the pawn on the chessboard.

    For the record, I believe in strong military and even stronger national security. But I also believe the soldiers should never be misused for the truly unjust wars that do not even pose a threat to America’s security, welfare and sovereignty.

    “I believe that man will not merely endure. He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. ” – William Faulkner

  • Gouveia

    It is a very good, and sad photo. It tells volumes about War. The parts of war you dont see. The families and love ones heart broken and lonely over a loss. This Iraq / Bush war is a tragic loss.

  • Mia Chambers

    Not only are you a talented photographer, but a gifted writer. Your soft touch and graceful respect was captured so eloquently. Thank you for sharing.

  • woohoo

    After three years I keep revisiting this page. Mary and Jimmy’s story never fails to bring tears to my man eyes…

  • Algae

    Thanks for this blog.I’ve add it in my google reader.
    I really love reading the story behind the lens.
    Can you please post some getty reportage images..

  • Terri Ayliffe

    You allowed me to experience Mary’s Pain,you allowed me to experience yours, you allowed me a clearer understanding, you allowed me to shed a tear for people I will never know, you brought me closer to my fellow humans.

    Thank you

  • Maureen

    The picture of the young lady lying on her fiance’s grave is very moving. War is a terrible thing. I am not an american but I have ties to America because my uncle served in World war 2 and the Korean war. He saved two men from a burning plane. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. My cousin was only in the states for a year when he signed up and was sent to Vietnam. In a couple of weeks his mother and brother (he is also in the service) were told that he died in action. He is also buried in Arlington National Cemetery. I found it very moving when my husband, our daughter, my niece and I visited the cemetery.
    My prayers and thoughts are with Mary. She will never forget.

  • Tina Phillips

    Mary’s and Jimmy’s story made me cry and hurt for Mary’s pain. This is the side of war that most people don’t see. This was a great sacrifice that Jimmy and lots of other brave men and women make for all of us, fighting for our freedom each and everyday. May we never take their sacrifice for granted. I am a very greatful American, God Bless to all of you Brave ones fighting for freedom, and may God Bless America.

  • thomas

    There is not a day go by that I dont think about my friends that didn’t make it back from the war in Vietnam. Some were men I served with some are guys I grew up with from the neighborhood. So for me memorial day is redundant. I am reminded of the cost of war everytime I go to the V.A. Hosp. When I returned from Vietnam and was discharged from the Army Airborne, the war was still being fought. I would watch the news and see my old unit in a desperate fight. I would get up and go to take a shower so I could cry without my parents hearing me. Till this day I cannot watch a war movie in a public theater, because I will cry thru the movie. I had to wait 20 min. after viewing this poignant photo of a grieving widow. Was it to intimate? Yes. Did it need to be seen? Yes. My heart felt sympathy to Miss McHugh and to Her deceased Ranger, and all the other fallen soldiers past and present, and to the families that lost a son or daughter to the tragedy we call war. this was an excellent photo for this solemn holiday. To Sgt. Greyson, Smitty, Red and Northern, I never forgot you. Airborne all the way, and then some.

  • thomas

    Unfortunately Plato was so right
    ” Only the Dead have seen the end of War “

  • getty images representative philippines

    Thanks for sharing this, a very thoughtful story.

  • Chris

    One of the most arresting images of heartbreak I have ever seen. When it briefly flashed by in a video, I immediately rewound and paused the image so that I could read the name on the gravestone. Then I googled it. Then I burst into tears.

    Thank you for posting the story behind it. I wish I could offer Mary words to ease her grief.

  • Getty Images Philippines

    I was so touch about the story. While I’m reading it I feel so emotional and want to cry already. Very nice story.

  • sewa elf jakarta

    So sadness…I hope there is no war in the world…

  • Gerald Genta

    Veterans and military casualties from each of the nation’s wars are interred in the cemetery, ranging from the American Civil War through to the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Near the Tomb of the Unknowns stands a memorial to the 266 men who lost their lives aboard the USS Maine. This is rather impressive and wordless at the same time..

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  • Lori Beaucage

    I have been so moved by this picture I can’t imagine how one feels with such a loss. I have a son who is in the Army and is getting ready for another deployment in the future. I have waited twice now for him to return home form war and every time it is not any easier.I Thank all who have served and is serving and I bless all who have died for our freedom.

  • KEN

    there are NO WORDS that can explain or feel what this young lass has/had to be going through. Anytime you want to “try” and feel the true horror of War, the true Feeling of Loss, well, this photo says it all. Every once in awhile I force myself to go look at this, and each time it gets harder and harder. My heart feels for the countless and nameless boys and men who lay here.


    John, former UPI colleague Bob Cox sent my the link to your blog and as another Memorial Day arrives, the messages above indicate that this will be your iconic photo legacy to us all. This does not mean productive years have ended…just that on one day with your family…with one conversation..and one special grieving woman…you incapsulated a mourning and grateful nation. The VE Day photos in New York, a burning girl in Vietnam, a flag at Iwo Jima, a crumbling wall in Berlin, a President’s small son salutes his father’s funeral…this is the company you join. But it is also one of those images which transcends any one photo journalists skill, timing, composition, and sometimes luck. It was a gift to us all. As the son and father of veterans and even one still active duty soldier, I am humbled by the millions of service men and women who allow us to write blogs. Thank you.

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  • vijay

    I cried when i first saw the picture and i cry today as we celebrate memorial day. This is the moden day Romeo and Juliet or titanic. This picture will remain for years to come in the heart of the young love. I am just hoping she found peace and a new jimmy in her life and moved on

  • Jim Conner

    As a Veteran, I am reminded once again of those who fell in the line of duty and who have left behind loved ones, to answer the call of patriotism, honor, and duty. I share their grief but my pride in the men and women who gave all and their loved ones who stood beside them, goes farther than the highest heaven. Thank you for this great and wonderful picture and the story that accompanies it.

  • Gary Edwards

    John, thank you for being able to show the world a slice of the pie we don’t often get to taste. I do believe there are battles to be fought in places some of us have never been in order that our nation and our way of life remains safe.
    But your photograph is a stark reminder of the price involved. Your photograph is just another example of the impact that a single picture can have on us all.
    I’ve been a photo journalist for much of my life and I marvel at the skill it takes to present a story in one single picture.
    You captured the moment beautifully and respectfully and I thank you.

  • Bryan Shaw

    This image puts it all in proper perspective. God bless her.

  • George Abney

    Washington DC is the most beautiful cemetery in the world and Arlington is but one of its many courtyards. The economic mess given to the American people by its elected officials in Congress will condemn them in history for the slaughter of the American Dream and the working middle class. Arlington is filled with those who died for sake of public service. Who in Congress would dare such proof of sincerity?

  • Stephanie

    John, thank you for sharing this photo. I was shown this image tonight on a military support page that i am a part of. I have 2 brothers in the Army, 1 in the Navy and many other family members and friends that are active duty. I have also recently joined the Navy. Both of my brothers just returned from a year long deployment in Afghanistan, my cousin returned also from Afghanistan about a month after them and my uncle was there and returned right before they left. This picture hits very close to home for me because even thou my family has returned safely, there was a moment where each of my brothers had very close calls. My twin now wears a purple heart on his chest. I can only imagine the pain that Mary has gone thru losing her beloved. It is a pain that i pray to never have to endure as my boyfriend is in the Navy as well. My heart goes out to her and to his family. Rest easy soldier, your fight is done, we will take it from here.

  • Elizabeth Fowler

    Truly moving. Beautiful.

  • tony seton

    I saw this image when it was first on line. There are few images as powerful in denoucning war. I send it out to people every Memorial Day.

  • Raymond Barrett

    My bride of 45 years was just laid to rest in Section 60 amongst all those Iraq and Afghanistan fallen. Even after 45 years together, I have the same feelings as Mary and talk to my bride. She is holding a place for me, and in the fullness of time I will join her and all those younger comrades. I am a vereran of another war but we are all brothers and sisters in arms. It will be a good place to rest.

  • Corey Blanton

    Truly touching photography. After serving four tours in Iraq I can’t but help think about the personal loses there to families and friends that lost their loved ones there. I grieve with Mary and feel her loss. I’ll forever remember the loss of my friend Robert C. Sheetz and others, whom left behind a family of their own in during 2003-2005. So much lost in this struggle. My heart and prayers go out to all those that have sacrificed and that will sacrifice in the future. As for me I’ll continue to go overseas as often as I can until these wars end, just in the hopes that they end and I can save a life at the end of the day when all is said and done. I feel Mary’s loss and would never wish to see it on anyone and would do all I can to prevent a loss such as that.

    Photography such as this need to get out so that the public knows first hand the sacrifices being maid by individual soldiers, sailors, and airman. I applaud the photography for his work and for traveling to dangerous places and wherever to capture moments like these that people should witness.

  • Maritza Crespo

    Truly a terrible thing to have to go thru.
    We should all pray for all the Marys out there
    and we should also pray for PEACE in this world. If our leaders want to go to war, then they should go to war as well. Its very easy to send our children to do their dirty work.

  • Kim

    I cried; I have over much lesser things; what a grand thing to give my tears to.

  • Paul Sorenson

    This photo truly is a masterpiece capturing the sadness of war. I find it amazing how our government can be so out of touch with the consequences of their foolish decisions.

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  • Richard Hanner

    “Some people feel the photo I took at the moment was too intimate, too personal.”

    I suppose that some people would think that. On the other hand, some people would do well to take a more intimate look at what our young men and women and their families sacrifice for them. Perhaps one of the more poignant reminders is the version of this photo that has been floating around the web with the caption “In case you thought it was national barbecue day”.

    I visited Arlington with my family a few years ago when I and my family had the opportunity to spend our Thanksgiving at Walter Reed, having our dinner among some of our recovering heroes. As you enter, there is a sign that reads “Welcome to Arlington National Cemetery, our nation’s most sacred shrine. Please conduct yourselves with dignity and respect at all times. Please remember these are hallowed grounds”.

    I would add to that only by saying that each and every person there has conducted themselves that way for us.

    Bravo for the photo, and for the service that you are providing for our nation. We have thousands upon thousands of fine men and women sacrificing themselves for us each and every day whose sacrifices are all too often forgotten or overlooked. Making your own sacrifices to tell their stories is also a service to this nation of the highest importance to them, their families, and us as a nation.

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  • Leeann

    Absolutely a beautiful stunning picture that says more than a thousand words. I have to agree with Mr. Hanner. If more people realized the price that is paid for our freedom, the men and women we have lost and the ones that loved them so dearly would forever remain in our hearts and prayers. I can only pray that this young lady was given a peace from our God above. May He hold her tightly in his hand as the memory of her love remains forever.

  • ZedBear

    All political leaders who would sit comfortably in their bastions of power, deciding where and when brave and honorable young men and women will spend their lives, and towards what end, should look upon this tragic scene, terrified by their own complicity in the evil that men do, and quake from knowing that their terrible day of reckoning is coming.

  • David Neylon

    I’m glad to have found the origins of this very poignant photo. Thank you John.

  • Michaela Daniels

    i wonder how she is doing now…almost 3 years later?

  • JustHoldYourHorses

    Very moving. A meaningful visual and description coming just in time to remind each of us what Memorial Day is for. This made tears stream down my cheeks, and very few things do that.

  • Forrest

    This image displays why I believe that soldiers are immortal;
    James will live forever in Mary’s heart. And now, after seeing this beautiful
    display of love and loss, they will both live forever in mine.

  • Ken Spot Fowler

    once again, likely for the 50th time, I am moved again seeing this image. when you feel you are lost, take a moment to see what lost really is.

  • Jenna Major

    Many people confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Can you please explain the difference? Thank you.Attorney San Antonio