Image courtesy: Pfc. David Hauk, U.S. Army. Kandahar, Afghanistan, November 12, 2009

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An emotional journey

It was a gray, windy fall afternoon in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where I spent part of my Tuesday after a meeting in Washington. While paying respects to several heroes I have had the honor of writing about on this blog, my emotions were all over the place. As someone who hasn't served in the military, walking among the spirits of my protectors made me question whether I've given all I can to my country. I also felt a strange mixture of grief, pride, resolve, and even panic. Are the greatest men and women of my generation getting the credit they deserve outside this cemetery's walls?

Please join me in looking back at the stories of five post-9/11 heroes resting peacefully at Arlington National Cemetery. Visiting their graves was a solemn, poignant experience that I will always cherish.

1st Lt. Scott Fleming, 24, made the ultimate sacrifice on September 17 while protecting Afghanistan's parliamentary election. He was a young man who took 9/11 personally as he watched the attacks on television from his high school classroom. The future Marine, who was known and respected for the grit he displayed on the basketball court, vowed to step up and fight so future generations wouldn't have to. And that's exactly what he did.

On October 11, I sat in his high school auditorium, learning about 1st Lt. Fleming from some of the people he touched in life. Just over two weeks later, I bowed my head at the volunteer warrior's grave. While his place of rest is currently marked with a temporary sign, the place this fallen Marine has in my heart is permanent. He was from my community in Georgia, and risked his life so others could vote. When I cast my ballot in next week's mid-term elections, what 1st Lt. Scott Fleming died for will be in the forefront of my mind.

Sgt. Joe Wrightsman, 23, jumped into the Helmand River on July 18 and attempted to save a drowning Afghan officer. Tragically, the Marine and his Afghan counterpart did not survive. A valiant warrior with a ferocious spirit and genuine commitment to those serving beside him, Sgt. Wrightsman "will stay forever in the history of Afghanistan," according to the governor of Nawa District. As I wrote in a follow up post, this story of selflessness is one that Americans and Afghans desperately need to hear.

Capt. David Wisniewski, 31, suffered devastating injuries in a June 9 southern Afghanistan helicopter crash that killed four fellow airmen, Tech Sgt. Michael Flores, 1st Lt. Joel Gentz, Staff Sgt. David Smith, and Senior Airman Benjamin White. He fought hard for three weeks, making it through a Purple Heart ceremony and his 31st birthday, before succumbing to his wounds on July 2 at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Capt. Wisniewski flew over 280 combat hours, including missions that saved the lives of fellow troops.

1st Lt. Travis Manion, 26, and Lt. Brendan Looney, 29, once roomed together at the United States Naval Academy. The former was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry displayed in Iraq, while the latter was an elite Navy SEAL warrior who lost his life in Afghanistan. They were also best friends. After emotionally shattering ceremonies on October 1 and October 4, respectively, the former Annapolis roommates are now spending eternity next to one another. The bond between 1st Lt. Manion and Lt. Looney is one of the most gripping, tragic stories of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

1st Lt. Manion, Lt. Looney, 1st. Lt. Fleming, and Capt. Wisniewski all rest in the same row of Section 60, with Sgt. Wrightsman not far away. They are five heroes buried among so many men and women that did not return alive to a country that desperately needs their honor, dignity, and patriotism. We can never replace these fallen warriors, but one way we can show our appreciation to their families is by helping keep their stories in the national consciousness. While I believe walking through Arlington National Cemetery is something every American should do at least once in a lifetime, we should already know that our brothers and sisters are dying overseas so we can live at home in peace.

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