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Book Chronicles Arlington National Cemetery

May 28, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally this Memorial Day, “Where Valor Rests,” that’s the title of a new book about Arlington National Cemetery, as chronicled by a group of professional photographers, both civilian and military. Recently, we talked with some of the book’s contributors.

RICK ATKINSON, Journalist and Author: Arlington is one of those places in America that means something to everyone who comes here. You have, any time of the year, any day of the year, a mixture of the living and dead mingling with one another.

I’m Rick Atkinson. I’m an author, and I wrote the forward to “Where Valor Rests.”

This has long been a liminal place, a threshold where the living meet the dead and where national history is intertwined with personal loss. Yet Arlington also is a shrine to valor and sacrifice, to service and fidelity.

Those interred here tell a story, not just of the republic in war and in peace, but also of a transcendent ideal, conceived in liberty and re-consecrated in every new grave dug, every benediction murmured, every commitment into the hollowed ground. In this city of the dead, it is an ideal that lives on.

BRUCE DALE, Photographer: I’ve never been here, whether bright sunlight, morning, noon, night, rain, or snow, and it always has kind of a special quality. My name is Bruce Dale. I was invited to be a contributing photographer for this book.

You’re showing permanence. You’re showing both beauty and sadness at the same time, and I think that’s what this place means to me. I used one of my specially modified cameras that captures images by light that’s totally invisible to the human eye. It produces a black-and-white image that has sort of an ethereal look. It sort of — it glows a little bit. It turns chlorophyll white and skies almost black. And to me, it sort of gave a ghostly look that I thought kind of was appropriate to use in an area like this, with all the souls that are departed.

One of my favorite pictures, a picture that’s on the far left, you see the Washington Monument, and then, if you look down near middle foreground, you see a caisson and the horses, and the honor guard is over there. And as it swings around to the right, there’s the Pentagon, and then it seems to be a sea, like just an ocean of tombstones, that seem to go onto infinity.

And on the far right, as luck would have it, by total serendipity, somebody wandered into the scene, and I talked to him later. He stopped to visit his parents who were buried there.

The dead from Iraq and Afghanistan

RICK ATKINSON: What you find is that, in a time of war, as we are now, Arlington has a certain accent to it.

Today, it can mean a great deal because there are more then 300 dead from Iraq and Afghanistan buried here. I described Section 60, where they're buried, as the saddest acre in America.

You know, you find, again, whether you're for the war, against the war, or indifferent about the war, you cannot visit Section 60 and come away unmoved. It's a powerful place. It's a place where young men and women have died before their time.

TECH. SGT. STACI MCKEE, U.S. Air Force: My name is Staci McKee, and I'm in the Air Force Reserves. When people go over to Section 60, where everybody is buried from Iraq and Afghanistan, I think it hits home. I think a lot of people can become very detached from what's going on overseas.

But when you come here, the magnitude of the sacrifice that these people are making, if that doesn't strike you, then, you know, nothing will, because you can't help -- you can't help but be touched by that.

The woman's name is Captain Lisa Doran. And I had heard that she had been in Iraq with her husband when he died. Both of them are captains, and he was a helicopter pilot. He had a ticket to go home ahead of her and had elected to stay in Iraq, because she was still there serving her time out.

I had a really hard time at that funeral. And I just -- I was really torn, because I felt, as a photographer, "I need to shoot this." As a member of the military, I was almost feeling like, "I shouldn't be shooting this."

I had to, you know, stop a couple times, because I was getting a little teary-eyed, too. But, you know, she did say that it was OK for me to be there, so, you know, I opted for just pressing ahead as a shooter and capturing that moment. And it was really, really important to both her and I at the end of it.

Ritual surrounds Arlington Cemetery

RICK ATKINSON: Everything about Arlington is infused with ritual. The ritual often surrounds the interment, which is usually overseen by military honor guard, the 3rd Infantry Regiment known as the "Old Guard." Honor is paramount, and they're thinking about how to inter a solider, whether it's a 90-year-old, retired World War II veteran or a 20-year-old who's been killed in Ramadi or Bagram.

CHIEF PETTY OFFICER JOHNNY BIVERA, U.S. Navy: I'm Johnny Bivera. I'm a recently retired Navy chief petty officer.

The old guard at the stables was a nice challenge, because it was one where, you know, action didn't happen in front of the cemetery. It was all happening prior to what happens after an event.

What I wanted to show was, you know, what did these guys do? What did it take for them to get themselves ready, get their horses ready, how much work it was going to be, how much work it takes them to make that moment happen?

This time last year, approximately a year ago at the same time, I was here photographing what's in this book and what's going on behind me right now. All the servicemembers from all the services come out here on this one afternoon to honor their brethren and plant an American flag in front of the gravestone.

So it means a lot to me now that I had experienced, you know, what these guys do to honor their shipmates, and their soldiers, and their friends, and probably their relatives that are buried here.

An emblem of the war's price

LT. COL. MIKE EDRINGTON, U.S. Army: My name's Lieutenant Colonel Mike Edrington. I'm an Army lieutenant colonel. And I was actually recalled from retirement to direct this project on behalf of Arlington National Cemetery and the Army.

I also shot about 30 pictures in the book, but the one most poignant that kept me going was the Letendre funeral. It was a captain, Brian Letendre, Marine, killed over in Iraq. And his wife, Autumn, and his son, Dillon, attended the funeral with a lot of other Marines and their family.

And it was a rainy day. And he's sitting there next to his mother, and his uncle is actually the Marine corporal presenting the flag to him, and the little boy looking up and not really knowing what's going on. And then the second picture that appears in the book is Dillon holding the flag, and the flag is almost bigger than him.

And I literally had about everything I could do to keep it together, because, as a soldier, I know what it -- and while I've never lost anybody, I know what it means and know people and have photographed so many funerals here. And it was just hard. It was just hard.

RICK ATKINSON: When the nation is at war, Arlington becomes a place to which our heads swivel. We see photos, not of the caskets coming back to Dover Air Force Base, but we see the caskets being buried here. It becomes a symbol, an emblem of the price that we're paying, whether it's this war or any other war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A commemorative version of "Where Valor Rests" will be given to the families of active-duty personnel killed since 9/11 and buried at Arlington. A commercial version of the volume is also available. Proceeds from the sale of that book will fund updates in the future.