As a 23-year-old staff sergeant, Edward Ruscitti risked his own life to take out an enemy machine gun position amidst a flurry of bullets and artillery during a World War II battle in the Netherlands.
Almost 50 years later, the 104th Infantry Division veteran died and was buried under one of the white marble headstones that line Arlington National Cemetery.
This year, as part of an annual event that pays respect to the sacrifices of military members, I had the honor to place a wreath at the foot of his headstone.
December 16, 2017 (Arlington National Cemetery) - The headstone of Edward Ruscitti, who risked his life as a 23-year-old staff sergeant to take out an enemy machine gun position amidst a flurry of bullets and artillery during a World War II battle in the Netherlands. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)
If Ruscitti were still alive today, I would have loved to hear him tell me stories about his service during WWII, the close calls he and his unit experienced in combat, and the gallant actions that led to him earning a Silver Star in 1945.
This was my first time at the cemetery as a volunteer. It's a little embarrassing to say this, but I rarely volunteer for such events. I'm typically attached to a notepad covering them as a reporter, which can make it difficult to separate one's self and soak in the true meaning of them.
My simple gesture was only a drop in the bucket to the huge undertaking behind this year's event. While it was brief, the gesture along with similar ones from tens of thousands of other volunteers turned the cemetery into an even more impressive sight.
More than 200,000 wreaths had been trucked into the cemetery as part of the 12th annual "Wreaths Across America" event -- a nationwide program that distributes wreaths as a tribute to veterans laid to rest at Veterans Affairs national cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, and here.
Within minutes, green wreaths adorned with red ribbons began to pepper the rows of headstones. The burden of dealing with the cold weather and long lines seemed distant and insignificant. Given the chance to share a special moment with a fallen veteran made it all worthwhile.
December 16, 2017 - A family of a fallen Soldier sits next to his headstone in Arlington National Cemetery, VA. More than 200,000 wreaths were placed on headstones as part of the annual Wreaths Across America event, which honors the sacrifices made by military members. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)
I was not alone. There were many others who were not related to those buried here but still came, including Sgt. Edwin Mancera.
The sergeant stood out in his Army uniform, flanked by his family members. A licensed practical nurse at the nearby Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, he wanted his family, particularly his younger niece and nephew, to witness the somber event.
"As Americans, we should all be aware of the sacrifices that have been made to get us to where we're at today," he said. "Having family out here is something that everybody should be doing. It just doesn't happen a lot, so I'm making it a point to do it."
As I walked by more headstones, the names of the fallen etched into them looked back at me and I couldn't help but be pulled in. I was also drawn in by memorabilia left by family and friends as gifts to their lost loved ones. From photos and coins, to a loved one's favorite snacks, the small mementos were all reminders that someone they knew had visited them.
There was a story behind every headstone.
When I approached the headstone of Capt. Sara Knutson Cullen, her family and friends had just wrapped up a toast in her honor. Sara was a 27-year-old Black Hawk pilot who was killed along with four other Soldiers when their helicopter crashed during a storm in Afghanistan.
December 16, 2017 - Nancy Davis, mother-in-law of Capt. Sara Knutson Cullen, a Black Hawk pilot who was killed in Afghanistan, places a wreath on her headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, VA. More than 200,000 wreaths were placed on headstones as part of the annual Wreaths Across America event, which honors the sacrifices made by military members. (U.S. Army photo by Sean Kimmons)
Sara's family chose to celebrate her life. And although it was short-lived, it was still a memorable one, they said.
Sara was an intelligent West Point graduate who decided to join the Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, said Nancy Davis, her mother-in-law.
While Sara was all business when she donned the uniform, Davis said, her daughter-in-law was a joy to be around.
"She could wear the Army boots, but she loved her Jimmy Choos (high heels) and the Coach purses," she said, smiling. "She had great taste that way. She was very impressive, but she was also fun."
In November 2012, Sara married her husband, Chris, whom she met while stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Both were Army helicopter pilots, but when she got deployment orders he switched to a contractor job so he could stay close to her.
"He left the service because she was going to be deployed and they were going to end up being separated," Davis said. "So, he followed her."
Only four months into their marriage, she was killed in the crash. Chris escorted her body back to the United States and would later rejoin the military as a helicopter pilot for the Army National Guard. He is currently preparing to deploy again, Davis said.
"He got out to follow her all the way to Afghanistan," she said. "After the accident happened, he got back in."
As we talked, people passed by Sara's headstone and admired the shrine Davis and others had made for her. Beside the wreath, there was an angel figurine, coins, a teddy bear and the empty bottle of champagne they had drank in her honor.
"For people who don't even know her to come by and to just say 'thank you' or stop and reflect, it's amazing," she said. "It's just one big family."
That made me think of the wreath I had laid on Edward's headstone. While it was certainly meaningful to me, maybe his family would have also appreciated knowing that their loved one's life was not forgotten today.
It's said that a person dies twice: once, when they take their final breath; and again when their name is spoken for the last time. So, for this year, it was my humble duty to say his name aloud.
Live on Edward Ruscitti. Live on.
U.S. Army Sean Kimmons
Army News Service
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