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Tom Sileo's op-ed column, The Unknown Soldiers: Christmas at Arlington
When I walked by, I put my hand on her shoulder and told her I was sorry for her loss. She looked up at me and acknowledged my presence, albeit without a spoken word. This was Christmas morning, and she was spending a precious moment with someone she loved. It was time for me to go, but like the little boy and his mom, it was impossible to forget her face.
A few minutes later, I encountered the grave of U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Vincent Bell. Affixed to the fallen hero's headstone were three pictures: two of the Marine in uniform and one showing him dressed up in a nice suit. Atop his headstone were three rocks, along with a coin, bracelet, and gold cross.
On Christmas night, I typed Staff Sgt. Bell's name into my search bar and learned that the 28-year-old Marine served four tours of duty in Iraq before being killed in southern Afghanistan on Nov. 30, 2011, while conducting combat operations. A tough, seasoned warrior from Detroit, Bell repeatedly risked his life for his country and did so with bravery and honor.
How could these young men and women be so extraordinary? How could they volunteer, over and over again, for such dangerous duty? How could their loved ones cope with such profound, overwhelming grief? These are questions that every American, not just those who visit Arlington National Cemetery, should still be pondering.
The American heroes buried in Section 60, and throughout Arlington, are not fictional characters from books and movies. They are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters. They sacrifice lifetimes alongside loved ones like the young woman on the blanket and the little boy who hugged his papa's headstone. And they do it to protect us.
Just as I was leaving Arlington to spend the rest of Christmas Day with my family, a privilege I no longer take for granted, I almost stepped on a gold star. Visitors had hung several decorations on a nearby tree, and the ornament probably blew off during the previous day's bad weather.
Written on the gold star was a simple, perfect message to the heroes of Section 60 and their families: "Thank you."
Tom Sileo is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.