Xiamara Mena stands amid an army of tombstones. She has come here to begin the long, slow business of learning how to live alone. Her son, Army Cpl. Andy Anderson, is buried here among our heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. He was killed in Iraq two years ago.
"The second year is pretty hard," Xiamara sighs, wiping away a tear. Now the Army Reserve is sending Andy's twin brothers — Rafael and Randall — to Afghanistan.
Killed on Mother’s Day
Other mothers have also come to visit their sons' graves this day. Beth Belle kisses a nearby headstone, then offers a hug. The embrace says silently what no one can put into words.
Beth was planning her boy's homecoming party from Afghanistan when Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirven was killed, on Mother's Day. He so loved the Marines that Beth and her husband allowed him to enlist at 17.
"He was always a peacemaker," Beth says. The kind of kid who, when he touched someone's life, they shined. In Afghanistan, the infantry rifleman passed out Beanie Babies and rebuilt houses before he died chasing insurgents into a cave. That was three and a half years ago.
"The first thing any new mother asks is, 'Does it get better?' " Beth pauses, lost in thought. "I have to tell them, 'No.' " Time does not heal all wounds; it just gives you a few more seconds each day before the loss begins again.
Paula Davis rises from her son's grave and joins Xiamara and Beth. She, too, understands the public smiles and private tears of a mother who has lost a child. A mortar shell took her only son, Army Pfc. Justin Davis.
She leaves a new picture of him at his grave every week, even though technically that's not allowed. "I want people to realize that this is a human being. It's not just a number. It's not just a name." Paula pauses and looks down. She takes a deep breath, then says fervently, "I want them to see this person who's here."
Justin’s heroes were God, Martin Luther King and Bruce Lee. He loved kung fu movies, even shot one of his own — on the front lines in Afghanistan. Said he wanted to be an actor.
Letters to a lost son
A quiet scene is playing near these three women. The men of Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Herzberg's fire team are gathering at his grave. They were sent back to Iraq the day before his memorial service. On the second anniversary of his death, the buddies are finally home to say goodbye.
Eric's mom whispers a prayer: "When we are weary and in need of strength ..."
- Gone Baby Gone Actor Sean Malone Dies Aged 54 Following Coma
- Endangered White Rhino Dies, Leaving Only Four Others Left Alive
- Two Die in Fiery Crash of Passenger Plane at Milwaukee Airport
- Tom Brady Sues The NFL in Federal Court Over 'Deflategate' Suspension
- Kentucky Man Faces Felony Charges After Shooting Down Drone
"We remember them," the Marines respond.
Gina Barnhurst chokes back a sob and reads passionately, "They are a part of us." Her son's story ended at age 20. Gina still writes him letters that are arrows to her heart.
"How do we keep having birthdays and Thanksgiving and Christmases without being able to hug you?" Gina's voice catches. The paper in her hand shakes. "How do we keep living our lives without you?"
Gina hung 22 stars in a tree near Eric's grave to mark what would have been his 22nd birthday. "You have this emptiness you cannot fill. And I just felt like I had to be where he is," she explains.
"What did you say to your son the last time you talked?" I ask.
"Oh, that's a hard one.” Gina swallows hard. "He said, 'Mom, don't worry about me.' He gave me this big smile that he always had, and he hugged me, then went off to help load a truck. They always asked for volunteers, and he was always the first one to volunteer. You want to have a longer conversation, but you don't get a chance to do that."
"What would you say?"
"I want to say, one more time, how proud of him I am. And how much I love him. And miss him. And what a deep hole there is in our lives."
A quarter plus a penny
Eric died October 21, 2006, while on patrol in Iraq. A sniper shot him through the neck. Like the others, he was buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. Death there is too fresh for the simple stones that mark the resting place.
People leave all sorts of things. One mother, who does not live near the cemetery, asked Beth to take 26 cents to her son's grave. "Since he was a little boy, she never ended a letter without '...a quarter for a call, a penny for your thoughts, and all your momma's love.' "
The mothers don't talk about visiting their sons' graves; they simply visit their sons, watching over them, just as they did on playgrounds long ago. Pride, anger and grief flash across Gina's face. "You feel like you should've just jumped across the ocean and been there to hold them that last minute."
Paula reaches out and squeezes her friend's hand. The mothers have formed a special bond, offering each other — and any new mothers who join them — something other friends and family cannot. "I can take off my mask that I wear when I go out to face the world," Paula explains. "When I come amongst my friends here, I can be myself. They know exactly the feelings I am having."
"We don’t have to be the actors that we so often have to be," agrees Beth.
"We look into each other’s eyes, and we instantly hug. You cut through to that deep connection because you feel each other’s pain,” adds Gina.
The first grave in Arlington National Cemetery was dug to remind a Civil War general about war's human toll. Eighteen hundred men rest forever in Robert E. Lee's rose garden. Now there are as many as 30 burials a day. Nearly one in 10 who died fighting in Iraq or and Afghanistan lie in Arlington Cemetery, the highest percentage from any war. There are more than 500 sons and daughters, fathers and wives in Section 60.
Beth Belle's son, Nicholas, was the first to be buried in a brand-new row of graves. That was three years ago. Now five more stretch beyond his headstone. She drops to her knees one last time before leaving him, hugging his headstone, pressing her cheek against his name.
According to the latest figures, Oct. 25, 2008, approximately 340,000 people are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. In the section set aside for casualties from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 526 are buried, roughly 10 percent of the casualties:
- 372 from the Army
- 111 from the Marines
- 27 from the Air Force
- 15 from the Navy
- 1 from the Coast Guard
To learn more about Arlington National Cemetery, click here.
Keep those ideas coming. Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox .
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints