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Section 60

by

Danny Ingram
President, American
Veterans For Equal Rights

A bottle of Jagermeister and a half empty six-pack of beer lay against the bottom of a brilliant white marble headstone in a bright green bed of carefully groomed grass. A faded POW/MIA bracelet from a previous war sits atop another. A group of adults laughs as a CNN camera crew interviews a young boy about his meeting with the President of the United States. A group of Marines in uniform stand quiet vigil over the gravesite of a fallen comrade. Other soldiers, in shorts and t-shirts, stand silently over another marker, their arms linked around each others' shoulders. A young mother steadies her toddler as the child balances against the headstone of a father she will never meet. It is Memorial Day, 2013, in Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60, the "new" section, where the most recent casualties rest in consecrated honor.

All around the immense silence of Arlington the rows upon endless rows of white markers stretch as far as the eye can see into the distance, a quiet and solemn green park of powerful, gentle stillness. Not so in Section 60. Children run in playful laughter in the bright sunshine, and families spread out picnic blankets and folding chairs to visit with the marble memories of loved ones. They talk and share stories, some in Spanish, honoring and remembering a loved one no longer living, but very much present on this sacred day, in this sacred place. An elderly woman strolls by herself with an umbrella to protect herself from the bright sun overhead. A mother leans her head against the shoulder of her husband. There are silent tears and gentle sobs.

The symbols on the markers are much more diverse in Section 60 than in other parts of Arlington. There is a Wiccan star, a Mormon trumpet, the Muslim crescent moon, the very first Tibetan Buddhist wheel. There is a marker with gold lettering, for a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, with the award's image carved into the stone. There are larger markers with multiple names. A helicopter accident in Texas, a gunship crew downed in Laos, an aircrew lost over the Pacific in 1944, newly interred after recent discovery, so very many years later. Brought home at last to rest among a new generation of the honored fallen, in Section 60.


AVER President Danny Ingram at Arlington grave of MAJ Alan Rogers

We have come here to visit the grave site of Major Alan G. Rogers, a member of American Veterans for Equal Rights, and the first openly gay casualty of any war in US history. Alan was killed by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad, Iraq, on January 27, 2008, while conducting a patrol. The night before his death Alan sent a message to fellow AVER member Tony Smith asking how the chapter was getting along in his absence. Tony keeps that message as a treasured memory.

We talk to the families who are sitting around on the grass visiting Alan's fallen neighbors. We share his story with them, and we listen to their stories about their loved ones. A son, a brother, an uncle, a cousin. Someone who is missed. Walking past various families I cannot help but place my hand on shoulders, a silent affirmation, a wish to share and heal. There is little that can be said. Or needs to be said. Only a common bond of grief, and loss. A sadness. An understanding. Loving memories. Honored sacrifice. An unspoken wish that it could be different. Here is the sum total, the end of the mathematical equation, the final cost of war. The loved ones lost. The memories. The price paid for freedom.

It has been an exciting day at Arlington. We have met incredible people. A 106 year old veteran. A POW from World War II. There has been a 21 gun salute, a canon volley echoing far out over the Mall across the river. The President has placed a wreath. There have been powerful speeches, patriotic songs, bands have played. AVER's rainbow flag has taken its place for the first time in the Parade of Colors with the symbols of other Veterans Service Organizations. New friends and new coalitions. Energy. Empowerment. Pride.

But here in Section 60 is where Memorial Day is most real, and most powerful, and most memorable. Photographs of young warriors have been taped to headstones by someone who remembers, and feels their loss. Young lives too soon ended. Love lost.

We have worked so very, very hard, for so very, very long, to secure the free and just right of our people to serve in the armed forces of this greatest of nations. Here in Section 60 we are reminded that we must work doubly hard to ensure that these bright white markers, standing sacred in the consecrated green fields of Arlington, are always and forever a very last measure to a great nation which values Peace, honors Sacrifice, and resolutely embraces the ancient dream that all people may live together with equal rights, equal respect, and equal responsibility for all. Here is the cost. Here is the pain. Here is the loss. We must never forget.

  2013 Gay Military Signal, AVER