On Memorial Day, Remember the Mothers, Children, Wives and Lovers Too

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]

Mary McHugh on the grave of her late fiance, James John Regan. Photo by John Moore.

The famous photograph of Mary McHugh prostrated on the grave of her late fiance, James Regan, was taken by photojournalist John Moore in 2007. It could have been yesterday.

Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60 is where military service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan lie. The place still makes the news — the superintendent, John Metzler Jr., just resigned — but for most Americans, Section 60 is not a place to talk of scandal or mismanagement. It’s a place to remember, a place to mourn.

On a Getty Images blog, John Moore wrote:

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!”

Moore had been photographing the wars for years, and he’d seen a lot of suffering, destruction and death in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I felt I owed the Arlington National Cemetery a little time. Maybe we all do.”

On May 27, 2007, Moore encountered Mary McHugh, who “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.”

Moore introduced himself, and McHugh told him about her 26-year-old fallen soldier. James Regan had gone to Duke University, and he had opportunities outside the military. Even inside the military, he could have been an officer. But he didn’t want to risk getting stuck with a desk job, so he became an Army Ranger.

Regan was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq four times in three years. McHugh and Regan had planned to marry right after his last tour of duty was completed. But in February 2007, Sgt. Regan was killed by a roadside bomb.

Friends and family had, naturally, worried when Regan announced his decision to join the army. “He couldn’t not do it,” McHugh explained (if link broken, try this one). He said, “If I don’t do it, who will?”

Three years have passed since his death. The war has dragged on and more Section 60 graves have been dug and sodded. With no other monument to honor this generation’s war dead, the military has begun archiving mementos left on graves by friends and families. Among items found are GI Joe action figures, a fishing lure, Crown Royal whiskey bottles and a rubber duck.

Only about 600 of the 5,400 Iraq-Afghanistan war dead are buried at Arlington. Other fallen soldiers lie closer to home.

Sgt. Ronald Kubik, 1988-2010

One of those is 21-year-old Sgt. Ronald Kubik of Brielle, N.J. Despite his young age, Kubik was already on his third deployment when killed in combat in east Afghanistan on April 23, 2010. He was buried in the veterans cemetery in Wrightstown, N.J.

Kubik was a handsome kid.

Ya gotta love a sergeant who had played in a punk band and sported a lime-green mohawk. AP reports: “A vice principal threatened to suspend him. Using his own research, Kubik challenged the suspension all the way to the board of education — and won. The next week, he cut off the mohawk, having proved his point.”

Sgt. Kubik knew what he wanted to do with his life since he was 17, but he deferred to his mother’s wishes to wait a year. He even went to college for a semester. In 2007 he told his mother he’d made his decision. At his funeral a few weeks ago, his mother said he joined the military “because he wanted more fulfillment.”

No doubt Kubik’s mother was in attendance when his flag-draped coffin, along with that of fellow soldier Sgt. Jason Santora, arrived at Dover Air Force Base. In the video you cannot see the families, but you hear them. The grief begins as soon as the coffin is visible.

Of course they knew it was coming. But from my own experience, I can say no matter what you already know, you’re still shocked to see the coffin. For a second you think: How can he breathe in there? We’ve got to open the lid. We’ve got to get him out.

Writer Jim Sheeler, photographer Todd Heisler and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for “Final Salute,” a series that documented one year at the home front of Marines who perished. Although the Rocky Mountain News folded in 2009, readers can view the photographs here.

As haunting as any war picture I’ve seen is the one of pregnant wife Katherine Cathey clinging to Major Steve Beck for support as she gets her first glimpse of her husband’s casket. And there’s this picture, of her lying on a floor mattress. She wanted one last night beside him.

Lt. James J. Cathey, age 24, is buried in a veterans cemetery in Fernley, Nev. The baby his wife carried turned out to be a son, just as Lt. Cathey had suspected. Today the boy bears the name James Jeffrey Cathey Jr. and he is 4 years old.

Katherine Cathey, playing songs her husband liked. Photo by Todd Heisler

These are just three of the 5,400 [now 6,440] stories of our Iraq-Afghanistan fallen soldiers. They are men and women, teenagers and grandfathers, all races, all religions, from all parts of the country.

And for every soldier, there is at least one grieving mother, friend, sister, lover or wife on the home front who will do what Mary McHugh said in the eulogy for James Regan: “I will wake up every morning for the rest of my life and thank God for the opportunity to have loved and been loved by you.”

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010; my follow-up quoting from the many reader letters I received: War Casualties and the Emptiness Left Behind]

About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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