By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
May 13, 2010 - Afghan President Hamid Karzai, flanked by America's top defense leaders, walked among the white marble tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery today, a silent tribute to U.S. servicemembers who made the ultimate sacrifice, many while battling terrorism in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan; Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and other officials joined Karzai on a tour of the cemetery's Section 60. This section, also known as the "saddest acre in America," is where many of the troops who died in support of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are laid to rest.
Earlier this morning, several people knelt in front of the tombstones to honor, and mourn, their fallen loved ones. But the section was quiet now, with only the footsteps of these distinguished visitors and a plane flying overhead breaking the silence. Fresh, brightly colored flowers bunched at the foot of the tombstones provided the only evidence of recent visitors.
Karzai, Gates and Mullen walked slowly up a path between two rows of stones, guided by cemetery superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. They paused for several moments in front of Army Spc. Ross A. McGinnis' gravesite.
McGinnis was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. decoration for bravery, for his actions while serving in Iraq. He was killed Dec. 4, 2006, while serving as a gunner on a convoy. He threw himself on a grenade that was thrown into the Humvee he was riding in, saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. His gravesite was adorned with a wreath, and a small flag set at the base of the stone.
Farther down the row, the Afghan president paused before one grave in particular, marking a solemn tribute to one of the U.S. servicemembers who gave his life while serving in Afghanistan. Army Pfc. Justin Ray Davis died near Afghanistan's Kunar province on June 25, 2006, when he came in contact with indirect fire while on patrol. He was 19 years old.
Karzai touched the colored stones that rested on top of Davis' gravestone, a common tribute to the fallen at Arlington, and adjusted a pot of yellow flowers set next to a photo of Davis in uniform affixed to the stone. He continued on, down one row and up another, exchanging words with Gates and Mullen, and pausing to read inscriptions such as the one on Davis' gravestone: "Loving Son."
This was Karzai's first visit to Section 60, a cemetery spokeswoman noted, although it's not his first to the cemetery.
Arlington is the burial ground for 608 of the casualties from the current wars. Of those, 468 died in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 140 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the spokeswomen said. Many of them are buried in Section 60 alongside the fallen from older wars, including World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
The Arlington visit was a solemn pause in the midst of a flurry of meetings and speeches aimed at strengthening the strategic partnership between the United States and Afghanistan. Karzai and members of his government will meet with U.S. officials through tomorrow.
At the State Department on May 11, Karzai remarked on the progress made in Afghanistan, from education and health to transportation and the economy. He noted that none of it would have been possible "without the sacrifices of your sons and daughters in Afghanistan, together with the Afghan people; and without your taxpayers' money spent in Afghanistan, together with the Afghan people."
"I thank you," he said, "and on behalf of the Afghan people, please do convey the gratitude of our people to the people of the United States of America."