(Where I met the ghosts of the living, but not of the dead)
Arlington National Cemetery is a place that exists only in the imagination or deep memory of most civilians; at best, we maybe once visited on a school trip as a child, or perhaps long ago with our parents. The last time I was there was before the war. Before all of this came to be.
It’s been a lifetime since then.
I’ve seen the pictures. I’ve seen the families. I’ve seen the somber, solemn, courageous spouses held up by some invisible superhuman force as they receive the folded flag from the white-gloved hands while they undoubtedly feel like crumbling to the ground.
But for me, this visit was a long time coming. In what has now grown to a near decade of civilian service to the military and Special Operations communities—as writer, editor, scholar, and strategic communications professional—my winding path finally led me back to Arlington, where the ultimate chapter of so many servicemembers’ stories is written.
But in my case, I went to see my friends. And the strange thing about it is, I had never met a one of the men I am about to mention in person. The reason I know them and know their stories is because of the ones they left behind—the keepers of their flames. The ones who still speak their names, share their stories, fuel their legacies, and fight to ensure that their sacrifices are known in a context that imbues them with meaning. These are not poor souls who died in vain, which I know from the living loved ones who have been left to carry on in their absence. I do know the living. And those are my friends. It all feels like a coming-full-circle, and stands as a testament to the truth that one torch-bearing human can—when fueled by tenacious love—rob death of some of its finality.
When I walked through this field of sleeping warriors, under the cool but pristine September sun, the grass plush under my bare feet, I felt—for them—an all-encompassing sense of peace. They were at rest with one another, heroes among heroes, having died warrior’s deaths and laying among their brothers and sisters.
Still, in the air I felt something else: the energy disrupted by restless ghosts. Or perhaps not ghosts at all, but rather the memories held by the space itself of the still-living whose boundless grief was manifested there. The ones whose tears had fallen down to water that very grass, helping it mask the dead gravesites with its vibrance.
SEALs Nate Hardy and Mike Koch were the first I had to find. I couldn’t help but think, as I sought out their final resting places: for every grave, there was a family. Mother, father, spouse, children. There were sometimes even the broken bodies of the warriors who had borne their teammates home, as well. One is my dear friend who, on his 29th birthday, sat in a wheelchair under a grey February sky as Nate and Mike were interred.
He had barely survived the firefight after Nate and Mike were hit when he, third in the stack behind them, took shots to his lower leg that tore through his body but left his soul intact. In that wheelchair in Arlington, that day in 2008, he made the critical and life-changing decision to return to the fight in what would go on to become a 22-year career in the SEAL Teams. How many lives, missions, and outcomes were altered by the decision he made that day? I, for one, would not be writing this essay right now.
I felt connected to Nate and Mike through stories that had been shared with me during a time in my life when I was lost and searching for answers. Their courage, actions, and sacrifice made me feel brave and purposeful. When I fought my last brutal boxing fight on February 8—the same date carved on their Arlington headstones—I did so with Nate and Mike’s names written in Sharpie on the hand wraps beneath my gloves.
We can fight valiantly, and that fight still counts for its valor, no matter the twists and turns it may take; that fight didn’t go my way on the scorecards—but those bloody wraps are still hanging in a frame on the wall of my house to this day, Nate and Mike’s names still displayed. Alone with them both for a moment, I thanked them for their sacrifice and for the gifts they’ve given me, even if indirect. We never knew each other in life, but in death, we have become closely acquainted. I owe them more than I could say.
I then went to see Nic Checque, whose name is uttered and face is shown on screen every time I speak to police officers about the intangible elements of the no-fail mission. We watch a U.S. Navy video of Medal of Honor recipient Ed Byers sharing the harrowing story of the night Nic was killed—which Ed never discusses without honoring Nic’s name. Even in death, Nic continues to serve selflessly through his story and legacy, which strengthen those who serve and protect our communities here at home. I needed Nic to know this, so I found him and told him.
And right beside Nic were the men of Extortion 17, whose death marks the most significant historical event that most Americans have never heard of. I had touched on this matter previously when I wrote for The Havok Journal about America’s failure to appropriately honor our fallen warriors, but my past cries for their recognition were countered by the humility of the 31 heroes’ final resting place. “The deed is all, and not the glory,” remember? And there they all were, their shared final resting place beneath one single, humble headstone, the same size as that which any other individual team guy would receive—which I’m certain was no mistake or oversight. Brothers as one until the very end, and beyond.
I went to see Andy Marckesano, and my friend Beth—a Gold Star Spouse whose Green Beret husband Trent was buried a few rows back—poured out a 40 of Foster’s and dropped a Camel by Andy’s grave. Along with Frances (close friend of Green Beret Jeremie Border), Krista Simpson Anderson (Gold Star Spouse Green Beret Michael Simpson), and Paula (whose husband, Billy, served honorably as SGM with 7th Special Forces Group (A) until retirement), we recorded a video for Andy’s mom in slow-mo, Beth’s dress blowing wildly in the wind, while I half-joked to the other black-clad women in our small party—whose husbands and friends all lie in that hallowed ground—that I wondered if we were enough to form a coven, and also wondering if there was some mystical energy we sisters could summon to bring healing, bring someone back, or fix something—anything—that was broken in this unfathomable scene of heartbreak and carrying-on.
Taking a long camera zoom angle out into the sky (over me and the girls who had come to celebrate friends and husbands Andy, Trent, Jeremie, and Michael) out to a drone-like view of the 400,000+ headstones, it comes into focus that the stories at Arlington are as countless as the graves. Each one no less special, no less poignant and meaningful than the other. Each family’s hurt no less deep than another’s. The weight of this realization becomes almost impossible to bear.
Especially in Section 60, where so many of those killed in the Global War on Terror lay. Too young, with birthdays on gravestones younger than my younger brother, younger than I, frozen in time at 28, 29, 30 years old, forever young. Their youth makes me wonder about the grief that can’t find any answers, like the one operator who had told me of standing in Section 60 and mourning deaths that were combat-related but yet felt senseless. Deaths that might have perhaps even been prevented by one small domino in the annals of time falling this way instead of that. Fates sealed by one butterfly-effect ripple in the space-time continuum (“If only he had just worn his chest plates that day”), now marked by plainly-worded headstones.
And how do we take that home? How do we make sense of that kind of senselessness? How do we face the sickening feeling that I didn’t expect to feel walking into that sacred ground, because of how that war ended? Because of how our nation’s leadership forced us to turn our backs and abandon it?
Because of the way we left, which abruptly changed the meaningful and heroic ending that each of these stories, which started on 9/11/01, was supposed to have had?
These men and women gave their lives for that heroic ending; that’s what they believed they were doing when they went to war. They gave their lives to win. They gave their lives to save people—good people, innocent people—from forces of evil that the brothers they left behind will tell you is real, and that they’ve seen face to face. Evil that only knows and responds to violence. Evil so atrocious that it exceeds the western imagination’s moral capacity to conceptualize.
It feels like facing a vast and mute emptiness, to consider the government entities and bureaucracy that sent these young people to war but never deigned to know—really know—these individual stories. That may give a contrived but reverent nod because it’s the right thing to do and part of their professional responsibilities, or because in theory they care and they honor the sacrifice. But in reality, they don’t lead like people who have made the deep dive into really thinking about the fact that under this ground are boxes, and in these boxes are people in dress uniforms representing the roles that they played to serve our country for purposes they thought they believed in. Individuals with infinite potential; high achieves, who chose this path instead of something more lucrative, self-serving, and secure that would have given them more personal glory.
The deed is all, and not the glory.
They chose this path, and here they lie. Meanwhile, I walk among their earthly remains and feel the bitter reality that one day these stories (which I can’t imagine anyone ever forgetting) will be washed over by time just like a wave on a beach washes away writing in the sand. That, just as I see the neat and tidy rows of graves from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam lining the hills of Arlington, those names and faces are only near to me in theory. But the ones that are near to me in life—our lives are now all intricately intertwined as ones who have loved and lost in this war—one day, their stories will wash away, too.
It is as another SEAL, recalling the day they lay Dave Tapper to rest, reminded me: the dead are at peace, and although we hurt for them while feeling their absence, we will take the acuteness of that pain with us when we go. If that’s really true, then we are the sand on the beach bearing their names, and one day, when everyone who lived through this war and its aftermath is gone, the pain will be washed away, too. And just maybe then, the ghosts in the air that I feel in Arlington—of the brokenhearted wives, devastated mothers, courageous but blindsided children—maybe in the fullness of time those ghosts will find peace, as well.
I had come back to Arlington on this journey to witness another story come full circle as I watched my friend Bianca lay to rest her husband Darren, a Green Beret, after a lengthy and hard-fought battle with medical issues stemming from injuries sustained in Iraq years ago. Poised, dignified, iconic, loyal, and faithful, Bianca was the picture of strength and courage as she brought her husband to his final resting place in line with his wishes.
During his service, I saw his mother’s hand reach over for a moment to find his Bianca’s hands, folded in her lap, her pearl bracelet glinting in the sun as her mother-in-law’s hand for a moment wrapped itself around hers in a squeeze of solidarity. I stared at the hands of the two women who had borne that man through this life: from his infancy, youth, and young adulthood, his mother; and through his adulthood, period of service, and illness, his wife. And in that moment, I became fixated on those hands. The hands that had touched him. The only hands that remembered what he felt like under their touch. The hands, in that way, reflecting the cruelty of his absence. The hands that could best-ever approximate his form again through a cool, still urn or gravestone.
Those who are left behind by the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines taken from us too soon—their hands, hearts, minds, and bodies mold around the loved one’s absence. Everything about them holds the shape of the departed as if they were still here. But it stays empty.
I want to say, “If just more people cared.” But what does that mean? “If just more people cared, as I do?” That’s not it, at all. I am not the point of this story; just a conduit. If more people like me—more civilians, more government officials, more of everyone who has never rucked, run, or worn the boots… if more people would visit Section 60 and feel the onslaught of reverence brought about by the momentous and undeniable sacrifice represented there by heroes, idols, and icons, perhaps there would be a stronger demand, taste, or desire for meaningful conversations about our nation’s involvement in international affairs and foreign conflicts.
Because no warrior who has buried a loved one in the ground at Arlington will say that the sacrifice wasn’t worth it. But the rest of us owe the conundrum at least this much: that we make certain we face the fact that evil isn’t someone else’s problem—the “someone else” being the servicemembers here who chose to take on this fight—it is all of our problem. And, as Americans, the respect and reverence we hold for our nation’s departed, as well as the appetite for historical understanding, needs to remain high so that we can move forward with maturity into a future where assets such as these young men and women are not expended recklessly.
Still, perspective is to each of us our own. As much as I am invested, I am still an outsider. There are things I still don’t understand, as I’m attempting to grasp whatever I can, and make sense of it all. Later, I show this essay to Beth, who is an accomplished writer, to get her thoughts. “I feel like there is something to add… we were just there for a while visiting with everyone we love and care about. That love doesn’t die. They sign up for this, and so did we. I just told someone today, I would never take the honor out of Trent’s death by saying I didn’t stand proud still.”
Beth shares that the first widow from D Battalion, before Trent’s death, was 19 and spoke only Spanish, but practiced the sentence “I am a proud Army wife” over and over in English. “She has been a model for me for two decades of war,” Beth tells me.
It is not unlike our dear friend Bianca, born in Germany, whose husband Darren we had gathered at Arlington that day to inter. A proud Army wife.
Beth and Bianca teach me. Have pride. And honor their sacrifices with that pride.
Dr. Atalanta is a leading scholar, trusted collaborator, and strategic communicator in the Special Operations field, working behind the scenes on countless projects with high profile individuals from the SEAL, Special Forces (Green Beret), Ranger, and intelligence communities in both the public and nonprofit space. Her work has appeared in multiple publications, and has previously earned the distinction of “Article of the Year” at The Havok Journal.
Dr. Atalanta is CEO of SOFXLE, a training consultancy providing the Law Enforcement community with support from the Special Operations world (www.SOFxLE.com). The SOFxLE program was born of another Havok Journal essay, “LTC Dave Grossman on Building Cops Who Cannot Fail Us: How SEAL Team 6, Professional MMA Fighters, a Clinical Psychiatrist, and the Best-Known Law Enforcement Trainer on the Planet Hold the Key to Solving Our Police Problem for Good,” published in the wake of the George Floyd controversy.
Dr. Atalanta’s open, frank, and engaging teaching has received accolades at multiple institutions including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the University of Virginia, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her doctorate and was ranked by students in the top 1% of educators across the university. Her most recent book is “Meditations of an Army Ranger: A Warrior Philosophy for Everyone,” co-authored with LTC JC Glick.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.