Sacrifice is giving up something you love, for something greater – Amy, 6, at her father’s grave, Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, USA, 2004
Arlington National Cemetery
March 12, 2015
Its been going on for ages – people fight, they kill and they die in battle. And if they are American and they died fighting for their country, they stand a good chance of being buried in the Arlington National Cemetery, which sits on 630 acres of pristine green meadows just across the Potomac from Washington DC.
They say that the cemetery was actually the estate belonging to the famed Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who had willed it to his daughter before he died and then, when she in turn died, it was taken over by the US Federal Government and turned into a cemetery for fallen soldiers.
It is a solemn place, crested by a small raised knoll on which stands the Arlington House where Lee’s descendants lived. All around the sprawling grounds are lush green meadows and oak that are tended lovingly by gardeners and landscapers of the US Military. On ceremonial occasions, soldiers are seen moving about, sticking little US flags in front of every headstone. There is also a full-size flag that stands in front of the Arlington House, watching over the whole cemetery, flying permanently at half-mast.
It is quiet in there. Visitors automatically speak in hushed tones, as though speaking in a normal voice would somehow bring disrespect to the 400,000 remains that were buried there. The cemetery is divided into blocks that are separated from each other and arranged by conflicts, starting from the American Civil War which began in 1861. There are blocks for the First World War and then the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War. The headstones from these wars seem forlorn, almost forgotten, with just a sprinkling of folks scattered here and there, most them in a hurry, their presence there more out of habit than longing.
The block that has the most visitors is Block-60 – in the southeast corner of the cemetery, the last resting place for military personnel killed in the Global War on Terror since 2001. Mostly the general age visitors (and the remains) is very young. You might find even little kids here, with their young mothers barely out of their teens, clutching each other, huddled in front of a headstone. But there are middle-aged folks as well.
There is always someone there in Block-60. Block-60 must be the most profitable – after all this is capitalism, isn’t it? Sometimes you’ll find an old man, kneeling in front of a headstone, his forehead resting on the cold white stone, hands gripping it’s sides, shoulders heaving rhythmically as he attempts to get a grip on himself. There is an ache here, so palpable that it hangs in the air, blotting out everything – even the bright sunlight.
If you are a regular at Block-60, you can’t help but notice, in a secluded spot that appears better tended than the rest of the block – a middle-aged woman, lying curled up on her side, the headstone in her warm embrace, her head resting on the tiny flower bed in front of the stone, her hands periodically reaching up and trying to prevent the corner of the blanket from slipping off the headstone, as if she wants to keep him warm against the October chill.
On the headstone that the woman cuddles so protectively, are the words –
David F. Dornberger
MEDAL OF HONOR
Sept 16, 1987
Mar 12, 2009
Probably in her early 50s, unruly auburn hair spilling all over her shoulders, a faded T-shirt that says in the back ‘Cool Mom’ and stretches taut to accommodate a bloated torso, jeans frayed at the heels, sneakers that have seen better days, the woman doesn’t give you the impression she cares about her appearance.
Most often, lying there on her side facing the headstone, the woman is oblivious of her surroundings. If you notice her that way for a long time and get concerned and walk up to her and try to say,’ Ma’am, are you okay? Can I get you something?’ she likely won’t even notice your presence, let alone respond to your gesture.
Late evening, just before closing time, a caretaker has to gently help her up and escort her to the gate and watch her get into the same beat-up Chevy she has been coming in, the past eight years.
Mar 12, 2009
As a fighter, Abu Majid Al Salam, is as tough and grizzled as they came – a poster boy for the Afghan Taliban, a dispassionate killer who has long lost the ability to feel remorse or make compromises, or have a sense of justice or fair play – he had been just 15 when a Soviet Spetsnaz commander had ordered two of his sergeants to hold him down while he drove a four-inch long nail into his kneecap, with a hammer. His crime – refusing to tell them where his father was.
The Russian would have been able to drive the nail in with one swing but the cartilage under the patelia kept slipping over the Salam’s femur and tibia and the nail kept sliding off, deeply gouging his flesh and bone every time, until finally the furrow was deep enough for the Russian to hammer the nail in. If you have accidentally hit your knee against the leg of a table, you’ll know how painful the hammering of a nail into the knee can get.
But that was 1980 – almost another life, another age. Now they have an Afghan Taliban and a Pakistani Taliban and over the years, Abu Salam has swiftly risen through the ranks of the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP) to deputy commander, second in command to the Emir, Sheikh Baitullah Mehsud. Now he has a new enemy – the Delta Force of the US – an even more committed adversary than the Spetsnaz and far better equipped.
The enemy is omnipresent. Overhead, the MQ9 Reapers unrelentingly reap a macabre harvest two days a week, their crop – mostly women and children. If there is a firefight, AC-130 Spectre Gunships appear out of nowhere, bristling with 40mm canons and 105mm howitzers, while wing-mounted Hellfire missiles home in, cleaving a swathe of destruction in their path. Following in the heels of the Gunships, the Black Hawks swoop in with their 7.62mm and 20mm rounds laying down a carpet of metallic death all around. Anything that is smaller than a house-sized rock simply ceases to exist. Oh yeah, the Russians would be no match for the American firepower of today.
It was the spring of 2009 and the night had been brilliantly moonlit, almost like day. They would have waited for the next new moon but there was no time. He was leading a TTP squad that had bivouacked for the night in the bushes surrounding a hamlet 20 miles south of the Afghan town of Spin Boldak, just north of the border with Pakistan. The hamlet was nestled inside a cleared circle on a vast terrain covered by a dense thicket of waist-high shrubs that seemed ideal for concealment from a ground-based adversary, but completely exposed to an aerial attack by fixed-wing ground attack aircraft like the AC-130 and Warthogs or choppers like the Apache or Black Hawk.
There was big game tonight and the Emir himself was by his side, toting a Stinger missile launcher whose dull black mat finish hadn’t been scratched yet. It was an older version that Raytheon had stopped making a long time back– the FIM92B – but it was brand new. It had been stowed away unused, in an Islamabad warehouse operated by Satan’s own rep on earth, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. The Stinger was a remnant of American largesse of the 80s and today it would be used to kill Americans. Salam smiled grimly at the irony. Raytheon didn’t know – it didn’t care.
The group lay there, forming a neat circle round the hamlet, a heavily-armed Talib fighter every ten yards or so. The fight with the Russians and the training from the ISI had taught them discipline. The Americans inside that outhouse might have drawn some consolation from the fact that they were about to be annihilated by a fighting force that paralleled their own Seals. What the heathen didn’t have, in terms of equipment and technology, they made up for – in commitment to a cause.
Oh, I forgot to mention – inside the hamlet were two dwellings – one a large mud and brick home with a courtyard in the middle and the other a small outhouse which had three Delta Force operatives inside it. The owner, a grizzled Pashtun who had fought the Soviets with Salam, had been a notoriously fickle-minded guy who had first decided to side with the Americans on receipt of a bagful of $100 bills and then, after taking the money, changed his mind. The Delta Force had been dispatched along with an interpreter with orders to either get him back on their side or finish him off.
As Abu Salam lay there on the ground that was still hard and cold from the winter, two of the Americans came out of the outhouse and started walking toward the bushes, possibly to take a leak. That’s when all hell broke loose. The landscape around the unsuspecting Americans got peppered by 7.62 rounds from the fanatics’ AK47s. The two Americans slumped, but they were still alive. That was the moment that Abu Salam recognized the Emir for what he really deserved to be called – the Emir.
The two fallen Americans had momentarily stopped moving, which called for a lull that was followed by a sudden deafening silence.
As Salam stared at the scene below, suddenly an American emerged from the outhouse. He walked resolutely toward his fallen comrades, his steps were unhurried – as if he was on an evening stroll. He reached one of the prone Americans, the one closest to him. He calmly slung him over his shoulders, hefted him with a huge shrug and started back toward the lee side of the outhouse. He was a target that begged to be taken down.
For a moment, Abu Salam’s Talib colleagues, including the Emir, were dumbfounded by the bravado. By the time they could gather their wits, the American had disappeared behind the adobe wall of the outhouse. They hadn’t done releasing the breath they had been holding, when the shape appeared once again.
This time, he walked in an even more measured pace, covering ground the way only someone who believed completely in himself would. He stopped in front of the other fallen comrade and the process repeated itself – the Talib staring, their faces aghast, their mouths gaping open, their resolves forcing comparisons – with themselves.
One fighter – no one knows for sure who – let out a burst. The American stumbled and fell. He had still a few yards to cover, before he got to his fallen comrade. That was when the Emir let out one single shout – wadrega! (stop!).
As the firing fell silent, the Talib gunmen watched astounded as the American, mortally wounded, started crawling toward his buddy. Their eyes unbelieving, they watched him reach his pal and come to rest right next, his one good arm now engulfing his friend in a hug.
Abu Salam raised his AK – just to finish the infidel off, but suddenly he felt the muzzle shoved aside. It was the Emir.
“Enough,’ said Baitullah Mehsud,” Don’t ever forget. We are all fighters and this is a brave one. He has earned the right to die – in peace.”
After some time, when the American hadn’t moved for a while, the Talib cautiously climbed down from their perch and approached the two Americans, lying there in a macabre embrace.
The brave American looked almost serene – like as if this was how he had always hoped he would die. In a flash, the Emir realized that maybe the total victory that he had dreamed of wouldn’t happen.
“Leave them alone. Leave the infidel the chance to take him away. He has earned the right,” The Emir turned around and began walking away – for another day – another battle.
As he turned, the Emir’s eyes fell on the dog tag. He stared it a while and then ripped it off the American’s neck. It said –
David F. Dornberger