So many visitors had asked for the grave that the man at the information booth at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday afternoon needed only to hear the name to recite the number.
“7986,” he said.
The route there took you from the visitor’s center and out along Eisenhower Drive to York Drive and Section 60. The sun was setting behind the hills to the west where Mount Vernon stands, and the last light of the day was shining golden on just the tops of the identical white headstones as you came to 7986, the one that thousands had visited since the summer.
KHAN, HUMAYUN SAQIB MUAZZAMCPTUS ARMY SEPT 9 1976 JUNE 8 2004BSMPURPLE HEARTOPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM
BSM stands for Bronze Star Medal, which Khan received in recognition of his bravery in placing the safety of his soldiers before his own in the moments before he was killed by a suicide bomber. His noble selflessness is often mentioned in the notes that visitors leave along with candles and flowers and other offerings. The missives also often mention his parents, who memorably appeared at the Democratic Convention in July and denounced Donald Trump. One note to them on Wednesday read:
“Dear Khan Family,
Thank you for giving all that you have for our country. You inspire us to be better Americans. May your son rest in peace.”
A few moments’ walk took you 126 graves away to the first casualty of the Iraq War to be buried at Arlington, interred on April 10, 2003. A second was buried in the adjacent grave four days later, and a third beside that one two days after that.
Shortly after this third internment, a freshly promoted Brigadier General John Kelly returned from a tour in Iraq and went to visit the wounded at what was then still known as Bethesda Naval Hospital. He there encountered the father of one of those first fallen three.
“I met a man who had just buried his son in Arlington national cemetery,” Kelly would later recall in a speech to a Marine Corps organization in St. Louis. “He asked me to come to the grave, pray for him.”
Kelly reported that he did as asked and stood before graves 7860, 7861, and 7862. He did not identify which grave it was beyond saying, “Of three, one was his son.”
Kelly had stood with the father and offered a prayer as someone who had enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970 and worked his way up from the lowest ranks. He was soon after back in Iraq, where his own two sons also served.
One son, Robert Kelly, also started as an enlisted Marine. He served two combat tours in Iraq before he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was leading his platoon on a foot patrol in Afghanistan on Nov. 9, 2010, when he was killed by an IED.
Four days later, General John Kelly addressed the gathering in St. Louis that marked the birthday of the Marine Corps. He made only one extremely brief reference to his fallen son, in the midst of a soul-stirring tribute to all those who have stepped forward in what had become our longest war.
“In my three tours in combat as an infantry officer and commanding general, I never saw one of them hesitate, or do anything other than lean into the fire and with no apparent fear of death or injury take the fight to our enemies,” he said. “As anyone who has ever experienced combat knows, when it starts, when the explosions and tracers are everywhere and the calls for the Corpsman are screamed from the throats of men who know they are dying...”
His voice caught for not even the full beat of a broken heart.
“…when seconds seem like hours and it all becomes slow motion and fast forward at the same time—and the only rational act is to stop, get down, save yourself—they don’t. When no one would call them coward for cowering behind a wall or in a hole, slave to the most basic of all human instincts—survival—none of them do.”
He went on, “We can also take comfort in the fact that these young Americans are not born killers, but are good and decent young men and women who for going on ten years have performed remarkable acts of bravery and selflessness to a cause they have decided is bigger and more important than themselves. Only a few months ago they were delivering your paper, stocking shelves in the local grocery store, worshiping in church on Sunday, or playing hockey on local ice. Like my own two sons who are Marines and have fought in Iraq, and until this week in Afghanistan.”
Kelly’s voice caught again for just an instant. He continued on about that other 1 percent, the 1 percent who serve.
“They are also the same kids that drove their cars too fast for your liking, and played the God-awful music of their generation too loud, but have no doubt they are the finest of their generation. Like those who went before them in uniform, we owe them everything. We owe them our safety. We owe them our prosperity. We owe them our freedom. We owe them our lives.”
Kelly ended with no further reference to his son. He said what he had to say in that regard with a written family statement:
“Our Robert was killed in action protecting our country, its people, and its values from a terrible and relentless enemy, on 9 November, in Sangin, Afghanistan. He was leading his Grunts on a dismounted patrol when he was taken. They are shaken, but will recover quickly and already back at it. He went quickly and thank God he did not suffer. In combat that is as good as it gets, and we are thankful. We are a broken hearted, but proud, family. He was a wonderful and precious boy living a meaningful life. He was in exactly the place he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do, surrounded by the best men on this earth—his Marines and Navy Doc.
“The nation he served has honored us with promoting him posthumously to First Lieutenant of Marines. We will bury our son, now First Lieutenant Robert Michael Kelly USMC, in Arlington National Cemetery on 22 November…
“Our son Captain John Kelly USMC, himself a multi-tour combat veteran and the best big brother on this earth, will escort the body from Dover Air Force Base to Arlington. From the moment he was killed he has never been alone and will remain under the protection of a Marine to his final resting place.
“Many have offered prayers for us and we thank you, but his wonderful wife Heather and the rest of the clan ask that you direct the majority of your prayers to his platoon of Marines, still in contact and in ‘harm’s way,’ and at greater risk without his steady leadership.
“Thank you all for the many kindnesses, we could not get through this without you all.”
On the designated day, General Kelly returned to Arlington and this time stood at grave 9480. The headstone that was subsequently placed there reads:
ROBERT MICHAEL KELLY1ST LTUS MARINE COPRPSAFGHANISTANIRAQSEP 5 1981NOV 9 2010PH NMCCM W/VVIRGINIA
On Wednesday, the sight of this stone was accompanied by the morning’s news. General Kelly was said to have been chosen by our new president to become the secretary for Homeland Security, charged with protecting us from other attacks such as the one on 9/11 that triggered a war well into its second decade.
Within view of this stone was the other one, the one whose number the guy at the information booth knew, the one for Khan. This fallen soldier’s father, Khizr Khan, had made a remarkable speech of his own at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. His wife, Ghazala Khan, had stood beside him, silent in her manifest continuing grief as he addressed Donald Trump directly.
“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?” Khizr Khan asked. “Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities.”
The elder Khan continued, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
The moment people would remember came when Khizr Khan reached into the inside pocket of his suit coat and took out a blue, brochure-sized document.
“Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said. “In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’”
Trump’s response surely crossed a line and his defeat appeared assured. A confirmation seemed to come with the thousands who visited Humayun Khan’s grave.
But other forces were at work and Trump was elected nonetheless, surprising even The Donald himself. He had planned a post-defeat vacation with his family. He instead prepared to become the next president.
That included appointing a Cabinet. One good thing that came out of it was word on Wednesday that the new Homeland Security secretary will be a father who had stood and prayed for his son at grave 9480 just as Khizr Khan had stood and prayed for his son at 7986.
The president-elect who had gotten elected despite belittling a Gold Star family had chosen a Gold Star father for his Cabinet. Only Kelly’s unimpeachable character and incontestable abilities stand guard against thoughts that this might be politics of the worst kind.
The latest war causality to be buried at Arlington was Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Keven Joseph McEnroe, who was killed on Nov. 4 not in Afghanistan or Iraq, but in Jordan. He was interred on Dec. 5 in grave 11162.
As the sun continued to set behind the hill on Wednesday, you could hear the scrape of a shovel as a muddy-booted workman smoothed the final resting place of a veteran buried that day who had been lucky enough to have lived long after his particular war. The scraping then ceased. Work ended as darkness enveloped 7986 and 9480 and 1162 and all the others, as well as the bare earth that awaits whoever may follow.
The entire cemetery hushed save for the distant sound of traffic. Rush hour had come with the evening and people were heading home after another day.