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On Memorial Day, Remember the Mothers, Children, Wives and Lovers Too

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The famous photograph of Mary McHugh prostrated on the grave of her late fiance, James Regan, was taken by photo journalist John Moore three years ago. It could have been yesterday.

Arlington Cemetery's Section 60 is where military service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan lie. The place still makes the news -- the superintendent, John Metzler Jr., just resigned -- but for most Americans, Section 60 is not a place to talk of scandal or mismanagement. It's a place to remember, a place to mourn.

On a Getty Images blog, John Moore wrote:

You watch a mother kiss her son's tombstone. Two soldiers put flowers and a cold beer next to the grave of a fallen buddy. A young son left a hand-written note for his dad. "I hope you like Heven, hope you liked Virginia very much hope you like the Holidays. I also see you every Sunday. Please write back!"

Arlington National CemeteryMoore had been photographing the wars for years, and he'd seen a lot of suffering, destruction and death in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I felt I owed the Arlington National Cemetery a little time. Maybe we all do."

On May 27, 2007, Moore encountered Mary McHugh, who "sat in front of the grave of her fiance James 'Jimmy' Regan, talking to the stone. She spoke in broken sentences between sobs, gesturing with her hands, sometimes pausing as if she was trying to explain, with so much left needed to say."

Moore introduced himself, and McHugh told him about her 26-year-old fallen soldier. James Regan had gone to Duke University, and he had opportunities outside the military. Even inside the military, he could have been an officer. But he didn't want to risk getting stuck with a desk job, so he became an Army Ranger.

Regan was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq four times in three years. McHugh and Regan had planned to marry right after his last tour of duty was completed. But in February 2007, Sgt. Regan was killed by a roadside bomb.

Friends and family had, naturally, worried when Regan announced his decision to join the army. "He couldn't not do it," McHugh explained (link erratic due to heavy traffic; if broken, try this one). "He said, 'If I don't do it, who will?' "

Three years have passed since his death. The war has dragged on and more Section 60 graves have been dug and sodded. With no other monument to honor this generation's war dead, the military has begun archiving mementos left on graves by friends and families. Among items found are GI Joe action figures, a fishing lure, Crown Royal whiskey bottles and a rubber duck.

Only about 600 of the 5,400 Iraq-Afghanistan war dead are buried at Arlington. Other fallen soldiers lie closer to home. One of those is 21-year-old Sgt. Ronald Kubik of Brielle, N.J. Despite his young age, Kubik was already on his third deployment when killed in combat in east Afghanistan on April 23, 2010. He was buried in the veterans cemetery in Wrightstown, N.J.

Kubik was a handsome kid.

Ya gotta love a sergeant who had played in a punk band and sported a lime-green mohawk. AP reports: "A vice principal threatened to suspend him. Using his own research, Kubik challenged the suspension all the way to the board of education -- and won. The next week, he cut off the mohawk, having proved his point."

Sgt. Kubik knew what he wanted to do with his life since he was 17, but he deferred to his mother's wishes to wait a year. He even went to college for a semester. In 2007 he told his mother he'd made his decision. At his funeral a few weeks ago, his mother said he joined the military "because he wanted more fulfillment."

No doubt Kubik's mother was in attendance when his flag-draped coffin, along with that of fellow soldier Sgt. Jason Santora, arrived at Dover Air Force Base. In the video you cannot see the families, but you hear them. The grief begins as soon as the coffin is visible.

Of course they knew it was coming. But from my own experience, I can say no matter what you already know, you're still shocked to see the coffin. For a second you think: How can he breathe in there? We've got to open the lid. We've got to get him out.

Writer Jim Sheeler, photographer Todd Heisler and Denver's Rocky Mountain News won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for "Final Salute," a series that documented one year at the home front of Marines who perished. Although the Rocky Mountain News folded in 2009, readers can view the photographs here.

As haunting as any war picture I've seen is the one of pregnant wife Katherine Cathey clinging to Major Steve Beck for support as she gets her first glimpse of her husband's casket. And there's this picture, of her lying on a floor mattress. She wanted one last night beside him.

Lt. James J. Cathey, age 24, is buried in a veterans cemetery in Fernley, Nev. The baby his wife carried turned out to be a son, just as Lt. Cathey had suspected. Today the boy bears the name James Jeffrey Cathey Jr. and he is 4 years old.

These are just three of the 5,400 stories of our Iraq-Afghanistan fallen soldiers. They are men and women, teenagers and grandfathers, all races, all religions, from all parts of the country.

And for every soldier, there is at least one grieving mother, friend, sister, lover or wife on the home front who will do what Mary McHugh said in the eulogy for James Regan: "I will wake up every morning for the rest of my life and thank God for the opportunity to have loved and been loved by you."

[Follow-up on the many responses to this post: "War Casualties and the Emptiness Left Behind."]

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Hi Lefty

Anyone who can watch this without a tear lacks the emotions of a patriotic American! The harsh reality marches on, "Men and Women still die to protect the freedoms we enjoy". God bless them!

June 09 2010 at 3:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thank You to all veterans past and present for all they give for and to us. Thank You for their families and the sacrifices that they make for us to have the wonderful freedom that we enjoy everyday.Please teach your children the meaning of this day,and don't let it be forgotten.

May 31 2010 at 4:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh My Goodness. I cried through the whole video. I cried for each and every picture. I cry for each of the families. And I thank each and every soldier and their families for the sacrifices they made for all of us. The soldier isnt the only one that sacrifices. Mothers do, Fathers do, Wives and husbands of those soldiers do. Even their children do. So I Thank you from the bottom of my heart. God Bless and know that each one of you are in my prayers and my heart.
Janice Taylor.

May 31 2010 at 3:10 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The "Remembering The Brave" pictures are a wonderful memorial and perfect way to honor these fallen men & women. No better way to remember them other than to have them in our hearts and minds for all eternity. This depicts the grief and pain felt by those left behind. Although having lived/felt similar grief as a combat veteran, I found some of these fotos difficult to view, but an immensely excellent explaination of loved ones' feelings. To all our heroes, God - Peace be with them all. You will never be forgotten...

May 31 2010 at 2:15 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

It is always the ones left behind that feel the loss. The dead, are dead. That is not intended to come off as cold. God knows those who sacrifice their life for the survivors.

May 31 2010 at 1:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

God bless our troops!

May 31 2010 at 1:35 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

we salute our american troops!

May 31 2010 at 1:31 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Mary McHugh is a spitting image of my niece Jessica. When I first saw this picture I thought Jessica had done a photo op.

Wonderful article...thank you

May 31 2010 at 1:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There is an HBO documentary called Section 60 - I just watchied it this morning. I watched it last year as well. It was shot in 2007 and I cried just as hard today as i did the first time i watched it.

For my dad, my cousin and all the other men and women who have died, fought and continue to fight - may God keep you safe.

May 31 2010 at 1:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

My boyfriend of 5 years swore into the United States Air Force just this past week. I was blessed to be allowed to watch him lift his right hand in the air and say those words so many say. While standing in the room the airman swearing him in said something that will stick with me the rest of my life. "Only 6 percent of Americans can say that they have served their country. The other 94 percent can live freely because of there choices and sacrifices." -Unknown Air Force Officer. God bless every man and woman who has served to keep this country free. And bless those who are at home wondering what their loved one's eyes are seeing where ever they may be. I am proud to call myself an American just as many others are and its because of you we can still stand and say that. I thank all of you and pray for you everyday. God Bless! --A 19-year-old proud American

May 31 2010 at 1:04 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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