For mothers of war dead, Arlington National Cemetery becomes a weekly ritual

The afternoon couldn’t be more perfect at Arlington National Cemetery. The sky is blue; the leaves have just begun to change color. Paula Davis sits in a lawn chair by her son’s grave.

“I think a dog would be great for you,” says Gina Barnhurst, whose son is buried in the same row. “A little dog.” The thought had popped into Barnhurst’s head a few nights earlier when she was talking to her daughter. “I was just saying, ‘Paula needs a dog,’ ” she says. “I don’t want to encourage it too much because it is a lot of work.”

The longest stretch of war in American history recedes, and this is what remains. Davis, 58, has been visiting her son’s grave here in Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60 almost every Sunday afternoon since 2006. In the first years after her son was killed in Afghanistan, she raced to the cemetery to see his name etched into the headstone and sit among parents and spouses experiencing the same all-consuming sadness. Wives lay facedown in the new grass covering their husbands’ graves. Children worked nearby on crayon drawings.

“I just couldn’t wait to get here,” Davis says. “I had to see Justin’s name.”

Today Section 60, where the dead from the Iraq and Afghan wars are buried, is a different place. There is still grief here. But Davis and her friends laugh more than they cry when they visit the cemetery. Section 60 is a place where Davis can talk about her son without worrying that she is making her family or co-workers sad or uncomfortable. It’s a place where she can spend time with women, like Barnhurst, who have become her closest friends. They mark birthdays and anniversaries together in the cemetery. They talk about dogs, home renovations, exercising more.

Twelve years of war: These days Davis and her friends think of themselves as neighbors.

“I am over by the holly tree,” Barnhurst says when she meets newcomers to Section 60.

“I’m in the same row,” Davis says.

“She’s June,” says Barnhurst, “and I am October.”

“We’re the little group,” Davis says of her friends. “That’s what we call each other.”

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