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