At West Point, a Quiet Place to Honor Warriors

8:39 AM, Dec 28, 2011   |    comments
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WEST POINT, N.Y. - Americans will argue for years over what was won in Iraq. To understand what was lost, come to the U.S. Military Academy cemetery and walk through Section 36, a garden of unrealized potential and thwarted dreams that sits on a windy bluff over the Hudson River.

Separated only by a hedge from a parking lot, Section 36 is the newest and least picturesque part of a cramped old graveyard that lacks the sweeping, aching grandeur of Arlington or the American cemetery at Normandy.

But there is loss and ache here enough.

See the big polished granite stone of Emily Perez, the highest-ranking minority female cadet in West Point history. On Sept. 12, 2006, she became the first female academy graduate and the first member of the Class of 2005, to die in Iraq.

At West Point she was command sergeant major, track star, singer and tutor. She started an AIDS ministry at her church. She donated bone marrow to a stranger. They called her "Taz" because, like the cartoon Tasmanian devil, "she spun with energy," says her sociology professor, Morten Ender. At her funeral, when a classmate called her "a little superwoman," no one thought it hyperbole.

Emily Perez: First female minority Cadet Command sergeant major.


Walk a few feet and stop at the simple white military-issue marker of Col. Theodore Westhusing. It says he died June 5, 2005.

It doesn't say that he was a philosophy doctorate-holder who at age 44 left a wife, three kids and a teaching job at West Point to volunteer for Iraq; that he said the experience would make him a better teacher; that he shot himself a month before he was due home, becoming at the time the highest-ranking soldier to die in Iraq.

Move on to the graves of Captains Stephen Frank and Jay Harting, Michigan boys who graduated from West Point together, went to Iraq together and died together while inspecting a suicide bomber's car trunk. That was April 29, 2005, two weeks before Harting was due home for the birth of his son.

A few steps away, in Row E, lies Lt. Michael Adams. On March 16, 2004, he was in a convoy headed out of Iraq and toward home when he was killed in a collision with a U.S. contractor's vehicle. The barrel of his tank swung around on impact, hitting him in the head. He was 24.

"Next time you hear from me," he had e-mailed his parents a few days earlier, "it'll be from Kuwait."

A cemetery at war's end is as much about what never will be as what was. Bill Hecker, '91, will never come back to West Point to teach Poe and Twain. Eric Paliwoda, '97, will never throw another tailgate party at Michie Stadium. Tom Martin, '05, will never make general.

Matthew August, '97, will never catch another trout or bag another deer. His classmate, Mike MacKinnon, will never have another burger at the York Bar in his native Helena, Mont.

The cemetery harbors the remains of 19 of the 59 West Point graduates who died in Iraq. They're among the 4,474 U.S. military personnel killed in that conflict. Although the Iraq war is over, the one in Afghanistan may provide Section 36 with more headstones.

The sense of loss is palpable. It's like Lt. PhillipNeel's sister Kelly said when he was killed in 2007: "There's this huge, gaping hole that can't be filled." Yet next June, Neel's brother Joe graduates from West Point.

Nineteen 'young treasures'

If West Point is, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur claimed, "the soul of the Army," the cemetery is the soul of West Point.

Spread out behind the Old Cadet Chapel, it has the intimacy of an old churchyard. Soldiers have been buried here in every American war, beginning with the Revolution. The first military burial was in 1782, and the national cemetery was dedicated in 1817, almost a half century before Arlington or Gettysburg.

Former cadets have accounted for a higher proportion of the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any other recent war, partly because of the ubiquity of hidden bombs, partly because of the peril to junior officers leading patrols and partly because academy graduating classes are larger. In Iraq about 1.3% of the U.S. dead were former cadets, three times higher than in Vietnam or Korea and six times higher than in World War II.

The 19 buried here include nine lieutenants, eight captains, one major and one colonel. All but four had yet to turn 30. Only one was over 40.

They left 17 children (none older than 12), 11 widows, and four fiancées or steady girlfriends. One of the wives and two of the fiancées were themselves serving in Iraq when their men fell there.

More than half of the 19, including Emily Perez, died in roadside bombings, never seeing what or who hit them. Lt. Andy Houghton was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while on patrol; he lingered for a month at Walter Reed hospital with shrapnel wounds before succumbing, shortly after receiving his Purple Heart.

Family photos

Stephen Frank, left, and Ralph J. Harting III were both from Michigan, in the same West Point class and died in the same suicide bombing.

Most had a family connection to the military. Many were Army brats, children of colonels and sergeants who grew up on posts around the world. They played with GI Joe and wore fatigues at Halloween; Phil Neel, buried next to Houghton over by the river, drafted ants and doodlebugs to participate in war games.

The residents of Section 36 first came to West Point as valedictorians, varsity captains, Eagle Scouts, youth group leaders, JROTC commanders. "These were young treasures that we lost," says Conrad Crane, '74, director of the Army Military History Institute.

This is where West Point's ideal of service meets its ideal of sacrifice, and the Long Gray Line finally ends. It's where the traditions of Graduation Week - the weddings, the final procession on the parade field, the hats flung in the air after commencement - are replaced by the folded flag, the three-volley salute, and Taps.

U.S. military fatalities by base

Base Total
Fort Hood 516
Camp Pendleton 352
Camp Lejeune 302
Fort Campbell 224
Fort Carson 202
For Bragg 199
Fort Lewis 192
Fort Stewart 186
Fort Riley 140
Fort Drum 120
Twentynine Palms, Calif. 120
Schweinfurt, Germany 96
Fort Benning 85
Schofield Barracks, Hawaii 85
Other 1,664

It's a reversal of fortune as stark as any in American life. "This place," says Col. Thomas Kolditz, who parachuted with Neel and still can hear Perez' booming laugh out in the hall, "is a great equalizer."

'To serve his country'

David Bernstein was first in his class in high school, No. 5 at West Point. "Confidence and charisma oozed from his pores," Crane recalls. He could have done anything. "What he wanted to do," his father Richard says, "was to serve his country."

He graduated three months before the 9/11 attacks, trained as an airborne ranger and was disappointed when his unit wasn't sent to Afghanistan. He was so physically fit, so gung-ho, so squared away that in Iraq his men privately and admiringly called him "Super Dave."

On Oct. 18, 2003, at Taza, he lived up to the nickname.

He was in a patrol convoy when insurgents opened fire with rocket propelled grenades and machine guns, quickly killing one of four soldiers in Bernstein's unarmored Humvee.

The driver stepped on the gas, drove off into a field and fell out the door. The vehicle stopped on top of his arm, trapping him.

Bernstein, shot in the leg, staggered over. He tried four times to pull himself into the driver's seat; the fifth time he made it, and rolled the Humvee off the driver's arm.

But it was too late for Super Dave. The bullet had severed the femoral artery. There was no way to staunch the bleeding; at that point in the war, soldiers had not been issued tourniquets in their field packs.

By the time help arrived, Bernstein was dead.

He was awarded the Silver Star, the military's third-highest combat decoration.

Dennis and Marie

When Bernstein was in his final year at West Point, the first-year students ("plebes" in academy parlance) included Dennis Zilinski, from the Jersey shore, and Marie Cicerelli, from suburban Orlando.

They met in Math 206, worked together on a project and developed a mutual crush. The following year they started dating.

She became a varsity cheerleader; he, captain of the swim team (which is where, as a plebe, he'd met Dave Bernstein; although he wasn't even on the traveling squad, Super Dave never missed a practice.)

After 9/11, Dennis' mother begged him to withdraw from the academy and his five-year Army commitment while he still could. "I said, 'Don't you understand? We're going to war. No good will come of this.' "

Her son was adamant, Marion Zilinksi says: "He said, 'I would never leave when my country needs me most.' "

On Graduation Day, after the commencement ceremony, cadets leave the football stadium to be sworn into the Army and to be pinned, usually by relatives, on the shoulders and cap with the single gold bar of a second lieutenant.

That year, 2004, Dennis said he wanted to be pinned at the cemetery. Why there? his mother Marion asked. Why not Trophy Point, or the parade ground?

Because, he explained, Dave Bernstein was in the cemetery. So that's where Dennis, his best friend Charlie Lewis and two other men on the swim team wanted to be pinned. The mother has never forgotten what her son told her: "He's our brother, Mom. We'd never leave him alone."

Four days after Christmas, standing on Bow Bridge in Central Park, Dennis proposed to Marie. She said yes - no hesitation. It was so romantic - until he said, "I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat!"

They planned to marry at West Point after they returned from their tours in Iraq. The ceremony would be at the chapel where Marie's parents were married (her father was Class of '77), the reception at stately Thayer Hotel. They bought a house near Fort Campbell, Ky., and ordered wedding rings.

Marie deployed to Iraq in August 2005, Dennis the following month. Both were in the 101st Airborne, he in infantry, she in postal operations.

They were stationed about 30 miles apart, but in north-central Iraq in 2005 it might as well have been 3,000. They never saw each other, or even talked. They e-mailed. His on Nov. 18 was to the point: "I love you."

The next day Marie got an e-mail from her parents: Call home. For 30 minutes she stood in line, anxiously waiting for a phone. Her father explained that Dennis had been on patrol, and there'd been a roadside bomb: "He didn't make it, kid. I'm sorry."

In accordance with his wishes, Dennis came back to West Point, where the minister who would have married him would bury him. Before they closed the coffin, Marie took the plain gold band that was to have been the groom's wedding ring and slipped it on his finger.

Next Graduation Day, another group of West Point swimmers came to the cemetery to be pinned, this time at Dennis' grave.

Marie married Charlie Lewis, the cadet who'd been pinned with Dennis at Dave Bernstein's grave. It's complicated, but Marie says she's lucky to have a husband who understands.

Charlie was in the battalion operations center when the call came in that Dennis' Humvee was hit. "He knows where I'm coming from," she says. "Six years later, I still have bad days."

The couple live in Cambridge, Mass., where Capt. Lewis is getting a master's degree in public policy at Harvard before going to West Point to teach. They will live on post and be able to walk to the cemetery to visit Dennis. It's a sad place, Marie says, but there is peace in this: "You're never alone."

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