No decisions until a visit to Arlington

WASHINGTON — As President Obama weighs a strike on Syria, he will meet with military advisers, consult with allies, talk with congressional leaders and perhaps check the opinion polls.

But before he sends Americans into another war, I suggest one more activity: Return to Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery.

This is where those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan lie at Arlington. These fallen warriors, buried alongside those who served in earlier conflicts, have filled 25 rows since the first arrived in early 2002.

Obama, admirably, stopped at Section 60 on Memorial Day this year after visiting the Tomb of the Unknowns. I visited later in the day, as I had many times before. There is no better way for those in the capital to picture the consequences of our wars.

I went back to Section 60 this week and saw that a couple of rows — about 50 graves — had been added since Obama’s Memorial Day visit. Happily, few of the dead were killed in combat, a sign of the fading conflicts. Sadly, not a single burial of an active-duty warrior has been open to the media since Memorial Day. This is because either all the families declined to have the heroism of their kin noted publicly or (my suspicion) cemetery officials are discouraging the families from admitting reporters. That’s what the Bush administration did as part of an effort to sanitize the Iraq War.

In Section 60, I surveyed the temporary grave markers and the fresh stones that have appeared since about the time the president visited. Here are a few of the heroes he would encounter now:

Twenty-six-year-old Corey Edwin Garver died June 23 in Afghanistan’s Paktia province, on the Pakistan border. The Maine native, an Army infantry sergeant, was killed by an improvised explosive device.

Warrant Officer Sean W. Mullen, a 39-year-old special-forces soldier, was killed by an IED in an insurgent attack June 2 in Helmand province, Afghanistan. His posthumous Bronze Star was his third. His death notice says he liked reading, hunting, collecting antique guns, renovating old Jeeps and, with his wife, rescuing stray dogs.

James Groves III, buried May 1, probably would have had a temporary grave marker when Obama last visited. According to the Dayton Daily News, Groves ran in the Marine Corps Marathon in October and, while in town, toured Arlington and told his wife he wanted to be buried there if he died in combat. He was killed when the helicopter he was piloting crashed near Kandahar. The chief warrant officer left a wife and two sons.

Another headstone to rise since Obama’s visit is that of Staff Sgt. Eric D. Christian of Marines special forces. The 39-year-old from Warwick, N.Y., and a colleague were killed by one of the Afghan National Army soldiers they were training.

There are fresh stones, too, for the Army sergeant who died in Bagram in June in a noncombat incident, the ordnance disposal technician who survived a horrific explosion in Iraq only to die in a car crash at home, and the soldier who earned a Purple Heart in Afghanistan and apparently took his own life at home. These new arrivals join Lt. Col. John Darin Loftis, the father of two daughters who was killed in an attack on the Afghan interior ministry and buried at the end of March.

A few open graves in Section 60 were covered with plywood and artificial turf, awaiting occupants. As I walked among the recent graves, a group of Marines, in blue and gold T-shirts, arrived to pay respects to fallen comrades. A cemetery worker was tamping the earth.

There were flower arrangements at every 10th grave or so. Helium balloons decorated the grave of a soldier who would have turned 24 last week. Scattered about were other mementos: a framed Bronze Star citation, a chip from Spanky’s Lounge in Jacksonville, Fla., and a handwritten card to a young man who died last year: “I miss you more than you can imagine, my son.” As I prepared to leave, I heard a rifle volley and taps from a distant burial.

Now, as Obama prepares for a possible military action in Syria, he’s facing a choice of a minimal strike that will achieve little, or greater involvement that would be costlier and still may not work. He’s sure to be criticized either way, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the prospects for success in Syria justify filling more rows of Section 60.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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