Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery
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.
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.