The view from Arlington

Everything went black for my father-in-law two years ago. First, his vision temporarily vanished while riding his motorcycle home from work. As his world dimmed, he managed to get the bike to the shoulder and avoid a major wreck. His eyesight gradually returned, but the real darkness struck several days later when he was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive brain tumor. Doctors gave him 12 months to live.

My wife Rachael and I dipped in and out of the darkness during the ensuing months of treatment. We followed John James through two surgeries, chemo, experimental drug treatments and experimental therapies. We saw the formerly fit man's flesh sag and slacken, watched as rashes covered his body, helped guide him after his vision went completely away and trembled when his mind started slipping. In those trying times, John paid three separate visits to Durango, each time taking solace in fleeting glimpses of his beloved Colorado. Unfortunately, those reassuring glimpses would be short lived.

During those long months, words like "Gulf War Syndrome" and "depleted uranium" flew around our home. You see, John spent his entire adulthood in the Marine Corps and was a helicopter pilot who had served extensively in the first Gulf War. John was also in perfect health, barely drank and was borderline vegetarian, unusual traits for a Marine, but somehow they suited him. They were also unusual traits for a cancer patient. And when the military wrote off John's illness as plain, old bad luck, the rest of us wanted answers. The signs pointed back to American involvement in Iraq.

The darkest day of all hit a year ago Thursday, when Rachael, my daughter, Skyler, and I, along with dozens of others, looked out over a windswept Arlington National Cemetery. Ironically, it was exactly one year prior to Inauguration Day when Lieutenant Colonel John James went below ground. The rest of us were left above, and we're still scratching our heads.

It was a day that continues to haunt me. Abnormally low temperatures and the brown of a Washington, D.C., winter made it especially somber. Following the casket on foot, "Taps" playing in the distance and the repeated shots of rifles echoing in salute all seemed like images conjured up from a bad dream.

Most haunting of all was the number of other ceremonies that shared Arlington National Cemetery with us. Three other families joined us in the staging area on that random weekday in late January. We brushed shoulders and nodded heads, before heading off into that sea of white headstones to bury our sons, brothers, fathers and friends, all casualties of Iraq. After the ceremony, I happened to glimpse a sign of times to come on the edge of that sweeping landscape. There marked in black and white atop a large sign were the words "Arlington National Cemetery - Future Expansion Area." Earth movers busily worked to prepare the way.

Since that sobering day on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., reports from the front lines carry a different tone for me. When casualties are mentioned, I no longer think in the soft comfort of numbers. Instead, names and faces come to mind. For me, the human cost of the war has leaked out despite the best efforts on high.

Not long after John's death, a dinner party conversation turned to Iraq. Numbed by too much drink, I absentmindedly expressed my disagreement with the war to one of its champions. The incensed man shouted in reply, drawing the entire party's attention. know, if you don't like it, why don't you just pack your crap and go to Iraq?"

I thanked him for the offer but politely refused. Pointing to a photo of John on our mantle, I responded, "Neither of us is fighting the War in Iraq. I've had my trip to Arlington. Are you sure you want to make the same visit?"

- Will Sands



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