Never Coming Home
I went to my first military funeral in November of 2003. A local newspaper wrote that Jacob Fletcher, a 28 year-old private from Long Island, New York, was being buried with military honors at the national cemetery in Pine Lawn. American soldiers had already died in Iraq, and I believed deeply that their sacrifice was important, that their deaths should not be ignored.
The ceremony itself was brief. A lone bugler played taps, an honor guard of seven soldiers fired their rifles into the air three times, for a twenty-one-gun salute, and the American flag covering the casket was carefully folded and presented to Jacob’s family. A military funeral has the feeling of having been designed while at war, under fire, and lasts, at the gravesite, about eight minutes.
Despite the sadness and grief all around me, I appreciated the simplicity and beauty of the event. At the time, soldiers’ deaths in Iraq were not being covered by the national media. The story was about victory, and the speed of the conquest. It was there, beside the freshly dug dirt of Private Fletcher’s grave, that I knew this was for me more than another story. It was a commitment I had to make, a chance to bear witness.
In the spring of 2004, a magazine agreed to fund my travel expenses to attend ten funerals across the country. Since the ceremonies were short, and to some extent, similar, I felt that it was important to add geographic diversity. Every decent photograph can be considered a landscape, and I planned to rediscover my country through a schedule determined by grief and death. So one week I went to the desolate high plains of Western Nebraska, the next, the desert of Southern Arizona, then the subdivisions of Central Florida.
I had been wrong. No matter how standardized the script of a military funeral, no two were the same. In the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, the police closed off the roads to all traffic but the funeral party, treating the death of a local kid like a national secret. In Arkansas, the father of a boy who had given away all of his favorite belongings before he left for war, knowing that he would not be coming back, invited me over to their home for dinner.
Not feeling comfortable, not wanting to offend or intrude, and always remembering that the people being buried were so much more than another picture for a photo essay, there were some funerals where I never took the camera out of the bag. And then there were others where I became an official photographer of sorts, e mailing images to the friends and family of the soldiers. Everyone’s relationship to death is different.
From the fall of 2003 until the end of 2006, I attended between fifty and sixty funerals, I do not know, I never counted. Zachary Barr, a radio journalist, and I also visited ten families across America who had lost a brother, father, son, or husband, in Iraq. Some grieving families wholeheartedly supported the war, and the Bush administration for starting it. A few were very angry with the government. But for most, their loved one’s death was deeply personal, beyond politics. It was from these families that I learned the most. They helped to show me what we have really lost, the incredible, priceless human sacrifice of war.
Where I live, in Brooklyn, Memorial Day is a three day weekend, a time to take the cover off the above ground pool in the backyard, or to buy the first bag of charcol for a barbeque along the East River. There is nothing wrong with that. After a long winter and a cold spring, the holiday is an unofficial celebration of the beginning of summer. But maybe I became a photographer because first, I was a visual person. I’m fortunate to see the world in memories.
Memorial Day reminds me of the ghostly faces of the pair of barn owls that live on the cattle ranch the Mracek’s manage on the edge of Hay Springs, Nebraska. I’d visit the owls in the barn each morning, and they would always silently sweep out onto the pariare. Pat and Jim’s son, Cory Mracek was killed in Iskandanriyag on January 27, 2004. Or of sitting in the living room of a Kiowa elder in Apache, Oklahoma, as he sang a trasitional death song for his neighbor Joshua Ware, killed in Ubaydi on November 16, 2005. I remember the muddy banks of the beautiful Wabash River, outside of Independence, Indiana, where Breanne Wilson ran with abandon, chasing her dogs. She was just a kid then. How would she be now? Her father, Bryan Wilson, was killed in Anbar Province on December 1, 2004. It struck me then, and still does, how the names of these places, so familiar and so foreign, were connected. Independence and Anbar, worlds apart, briefly brought together in tradgedy.
For me, Memorial Day has nothing to do with a single day, a single time of year, the end of Spring and the beginning of Summer. Every day is Memorial Day.I remember visiting Arlington Cemetery on a freezing winter day, just after Valentine’s Day. An icy crust had formed on top of the snow, and as I walked through the rows of new graves in Section 60, the area of the cemetery reserved for casualities of the War on Terror, my boots fell through the ice, leaving a messy trail. On top of a single grave, a woman had left the imprint of a kiss, the red lipstick shining against the winter white.
Brooklyn, New York
February 15, 2016