Winter 2008 - Volume: 14 Issue: 4
Christmas in Section 60, Arlington National Cemetery
Scott Warner, surviving father of Private Heath Warner
Tags: Early Days of Grief, General Grief, KIA / Combat, Parent, Men's Grief, Survivor Voices
SEction 60, rifle team for Heath Warner's funeral. Photo courtesy Scott Warner.
Christmas is a special time for families. My family has always loved Christmas, and it is a wonderful time of year for making memories with your special loved ones, family, and friends. Over the years, our family developed our own special traditions and rituals that became part of our holiday season. Each year, we spent Christmas Eve at my cousin’s house, wore special Christmas pajamas, and hung a new Christmas ornament on the tree for our three boys to add to their collections. Your family most likely has its own special traditions as well.
Our First Holiday
Heath, our oldest son, loved Christmas. He would get so excited on Christmas Eve that he couldn’t sleep. Meanwhile, I wanted to get the gifts under the tree, and I could not play Santa until he went to sleep. Those ended up being late nights and I was exhausted on Christmas Day. It is strange looking back on those memories now.
Christmas 2006 was going to be Heath’s first Christmas away from his family, as he was to be in Iraq. We had prepared and shipped his special boxes filled with treats and gifts, a miniature Christmas tree with all our pictures on it, and a Christmas stocking containing special messages in glitter on the front. Many of our friends and family had sent packages, too. How were we to know that he would never celebrate Christmas with us again in this world?
Heath was killed in action on November 22, 2006 in the Anbar Province of Iraq, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on December 13, 2006. I remember looking across the cemetery as I sat before Heath’s casket and seeing Christmas wreaths and decorations around the headstones. It was a painful reminder that he would not be with us this holiday season.
Once we returned home, we began to prepare for Christmas Day. The rituals that I once looked forward to became a source for magnifying our loss. Yet we wanted to make the holidays special for our remaining sons, Chandler and Ashton. We tried our best to maintain some of our special traditions, but it was hard work. I could not put up a tree, shop, or bake cookies; our friends and family did that for us. We did go to my cousin’s; we wore Christmas pajamas and even placed new ornaments on the tree on Christmas Eve.
I thought I had made it through the holiday, but the reality of his death hit hard when two days after Christmas, the doorbell rang and I looked out to see a stack of boxes on our front porch. They were all Heath’s Christmas packages returned to us from Iraq. It was an emotionally devastating sight and I was painfully aware there were no presents for Heath this Christmas except for a simple evergreen branch attached to a temporary marker at his fresh grave in Section 60. We left the next day for Disney World to escape the heartache of the remaining season.
The Second Year
Last year, as we approached our second Christmas season without Heath, we made plans to go to his grave on the Saturday that Wreaths Across America came to Arlington to decorate the graves. Melissa and I decided we could not move forward with the holiday season until we had spent time with Heath at his grave.
We purchased special holiday decorations; a wreath for Heath’s grave and some extra wreaths in case some of the other graves needed to be decorated. We also brought Christmas ornaments to hang on the bushes and trees near his grave. We had heard that people would decorate the trees near their loved ones’ graves, and so each of us had a special ornament to remember Heath. We had purchased ornaments with a blank section for writing a message. They were not fancy but we thought they could last outdoors through the winter weather…at least until Christmas day.
When we arrived at Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the stark white gravestones had been transformed into a Christmas celebration for all our heroes. Simple evergreen wreaths with crisp red bows could be seen throughout the cemetery as families and friends expressed their respect, love, and devotion, by decorating the graves. Much to our surprise, a wreath had already been placed on Heath’s grave. Our time there was not an intimate moment with our son, but we arranged our wreath and other decorations, placing them just so. We also spent time decorating the graves without wreaths, and visiting with other families who had come to their loved ones’ graves.
The Barbieri family brought a heart shaped wreath with family pictures tied to it, and they decorated and spent time “with” their hero, TJ, a much missed and much loved son and brother. Toasts were made and cigars smoked in his memory. Each year Nicholas Kirven’s family brings a wreath given to them by another surviving family, the Philippons. The wreath has four candles representing Hope, Grief, Memories, and Love. They light each candle as they read the words that describe its symbolism. Then joining hands, and inviting anyone present to participate, they pray the Lord’s Prayer. The family of Cpl. Stephen Bixler has for the past three years packed up and headed to Arlington for Christmas. The hotel where they stay makes grilled cheese and fries to go, which they take to Section 60 for their holiday dinner with Steven. Julie Jutras, mother of PFC Dillon Jutras usually brings the kids and grandkids, and decorates a small Christmas tree with photos of family and friends, flags, ribbon, quotes, and messages. At the end of the season they take it home, clean it up, and update it for the next year.
Holly, a well-known figure to the families of Section 60, is the bringer of the tree skirt for the holly tree near the York side of Section 60. Although she cannot place the skirt until after the last funeral on December 24th, the families know it will be arriving soon. As one of the “guardian angels” who visits with and supports the grieving families of Section 60, Holly trims the pentagonal tree skirt with the roses that were placed in Arlington the previous February. New traditions started by other Section 60 families have also sprung up from the hallowed ground of Arlington… ground that also brought forth the worst pain that these families have ever known. It was quite a sight to see all the decorated graves and all the people in Section 60 on that December day.
Before we left to return home, we hung our ornaments on one of the holly bushes near Heath’s grave. Ashton’s ornament was a cute little Santa Claus that simply stated, “I Love Heath.” It captured the heart of how we all felt. As we stood there, I remember looking at the other ornaments honoring the lives of the other loved ones buried in Section 60, and I turned to Melissa and said, “Who would have thought our newest Christmas tradition would be coming to Arlington to place a wreath and an ornament at our son’s grave?”
It was comforting to realize that we were still including Heath in one of our special traditions… one that we had maintained since he was a little boy. Now we would hang a new ornament on the tree and visit with our new family of friends from Arlington Section 60. In reality, we were creating new traditions from our old ones. I cannot imagine going through the Holiday Season without spending time with Heath.
In the end, it is still about making memories and special times with our loved ones, and I know we will always celebrate Christmas with all of our sons, Heath, Chandler, and Ashton. It is a different kind of celebration now, but we will remember all the love, all the good times, and all the Christmases of the past as we look forward to the day when we will celebrate together once again.
From our Family to Yours, We wish you a Wonderful, Blessed Holiday Season
Scott, Melissa, Chandler, and Ashton Warner, Surviving Family of PVT Heath D. Warner, www.pvtheathwarner.com