A Holiday Visit to Arlington National Cemetery
(December 22, 2010)
|ARLINGTON, Va., Dec. 21, 2010 – I walked the grounds of Arlington National
Cemetery this morning to put wreaths on the graves of two dear friends and a
fallen soldier I've never met.
The cemetery never fails to move me, its stark
white headstones standing dress-right-dress
along its hills and plains for as far as the eye
can see. Driving through the grand entrance
gates just as they opened this morning of the
winter solstice – the longest, darkest day of
the year – I knew I was in for an emotional
Each headstone was adorned with a holiday
wreath, donated as part of the “Wreaths Across
America” project. The bright red ribbons
provided cheerful contrast to the cemetery's
hills and plains, much of it still blanketed
with the last remnants of an early-season snow.
Walking through Section 60, the final resting
place for almost 700 fallen veterans of Iraq and
Afghanistan, I stopped at the grave of Army
Staff Sgt. James R. Patton. I'd never met
“Jimmy,” as his family calls him, but I had the
privilege of meeting his mother, Sheila, during
a recent trip to Fort Campbell, Ky.
Christmas wreaths adorn the grave
of Army Staff Sgt. James R. Patton at Arlington National
Cemetery, Dec. 21, 2010. Patton was serving his seventh
overseas deployment since 9/11 with the 3rd Battalion, 75th
Ranger Regiment, when he died in a helicopter crash in
Tikrit, Iraq, on April 18, 2010.
Jimmy, who was serving his seventh overseas deployment since 9/11 with the 3rd
Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, died in a helicopter crash in Tikrit, Iraq, on
April 18. His father, Army Command Sgt. Major Gregory Patton, who is deployed to
Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team,
accompanied his son's body home for the funeral, then left to rejoin his unit.
Sheila Patton, despite all she's dealt with during the past year, has stood as a
font of courage and inspiration to everyone whose lives she has touched.
“I am a proud momma of a soldier who died fighting for his country and doing
what he loved doing,” she told me. “If he had to die before us, that is the only
way we could ever have accepted his death: to smile and be proud and honored
that God thought enough of my son to make him a hero.”
But despite Sheila's seemingly Teflon composure, I know this Christmas will be a
particularly painful one.
As I stood at Jimmy's grave, I looked around me and took in the majesty of
Arlington National Cemetery. In every direction, I saw reminders that other
families, like the Pattons, will be feeling the loss of a loved one this
Many had visited their husband's, wife's, father's, mother's, son's, daughter's,
brother's, sister's gravesite, leaving behind personal and very individual
Some had left simple holiday memorials: a festive floral arrangement, a
miniature Christmas tree, a wrapped gift box.
Others were more elaborate. The grave of Army Cpl. Christopher John-Lee "C.J."
West, an 82nd Airborne Division soldier killed in Iraq in February 2004,
featured two American flags, a large Styrofoam snowman, a set of felt reindeer
antlers and a sweatshirt of West's beloved Dallas Cowboys.
Two bright balloons flew over the grave of Sgt. Alberto Montrond, a 7th Special
Forces Group soldier killed in Afghanistan in February 2006. At the base of his
headstone, next to a wreath, was a plate with two holiday cupcakes.
A large floral arrangement with a ribbon proclaiming, “Rangers Lead the Way,”
adorned Army Cpl. Ryan Casey McGhee's grave. The 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger
Regiment, soldier was killed in Iraq in May 2009.
His mother had left behind a hand-written Christmas card, telling her son that
although she thinks of him every day, the holidays are going to be especially
He won't be there to open gifts with his family, to share in a holiday toast, or
even to call from a faraway deployment to tell them he loves them. And the empty
seat at the dinner table will forever be a reminder of what they've lost.
As I left Arlington and headed off to work, I felt a deep sense of sadness over
how much so many have sacrificed.
But then I remembered Sheila Patton, and the selfless gift she and so many
others like her have given me and every other American.
Merry Christmas, Gold Star families. I wish you – and all of us -- peace on
Article and photo by Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
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