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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frank, left, and Ralph J. Harting III were both from Michigan, in the
same West Point class and died in the same suicide bombing.
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
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,
U.S. military fatalities by base
|Twentynine Palms, Calif.
|Schofield Barracks, Hawaii
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'
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.' "
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
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?
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."
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!"
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
Marie deployed to Iraq in August 2005,
Dennis the following month. Both were in the 101st Airborne, he in
infantry, she in postal operations.
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."
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."
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.
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