Americans honor soldiers as they debate war in Iraq

WASHINGTON – The debate over the Iraq war broke out along Arlington National Cemetery’s Roosevelt Drive, in a sea of headstones before a gallery of the dead, just down the road from where President Bush had concluded his Memorial Day speech minutes before.

Three congressional interns – hot, tired and in awe of the crowds and the pageantry – were walking back, trying to sort through what it all meant. One, Julia Villamizar, a 20-year-old from Miami, said it was difficult for her to see American soldiers in Iraq as “heroes.” She admired them and didn’t want them to die. But she did not see the Iraqis as enemies. “I guess I don’t see the people in Iraq as villains,” she said.

Just then, Claude Wilson, an insurance adjuster from New Mexico who had been walking by with his two grandsons, jumped in.

“I was your age during the Vietnam War,” he told Villamizar. “I marched in peace marches. I’m not opposed to peace protests. But if someone is willing to put his life on the line for their country, they’re a hero.”

From Arlington Cemetery to the Mall ceremonies, those who were honoring the fallen of past wars wrangled over the merits of the conflict. But there were also other images:

Teenagers from a Toronto Jewish school thanking veteran John Gabersek, 87, who sat in the shade by the National World War II Memorial in his olive-drab Army tunic, his walker folded nearby.

The scrawled note left at the Korean War Veterans Memorial to veteran Houston Chapman: “You were the best dad anyone could want. … We miss you. Mother’s doing fine.”

And Sam Floberg, 29, a sergeant with the Army National Guard who lost much of his right leg last year during an ambush in Afghanistan, sitting in a wheelchair at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, saying he knows now that they are more than just names on a wall.

But the current war seemed to be on many minds.

At Arlington, Villamizar and Wilson were soon arguing the origins of the conflict, Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein, and whether it was right for Americans to assert their cultural values in the Middle East. The back-and-forth continued for 15 minutes or so but never rose to angry tones.

As they set off on their separate ways, Villamizar stopped Wilson. “Wait,” she said, “I want to get a picture with you.”

Across the Potomac River, Bill Mulholland, 45, and his wife, Allison, 37, of Silver Spring, Md., had brought their four children to the Mall to see the sights and mark the solemnity.

“I think people forget. … We’ve got the ability to protest,” Bill Mulholland said as they stood near 17th Street and Constitution Avenue.

Didi Lunceford of Riverside, Calif., had come to see for the first time the name of her brother, Jacob Ortiz, on the Wall at the Vietnam Memorial. Ortiz, who was killed at Cu Chi by a sniper in 1967, was an American Indian – Hopi and Ute, she said. “He was born a warrior,” she said, “a pride and honor to his people.”

Bonita Mulqueen of Bay Shore, N.Y., who attended midday events at the Wall, said she believed that Memorial Day and the war in Iraq cannot be entirely separated.

“It tears me apart,” Mulqueen, 61, said as she stood with a friend, Vietnam veteran Luis Sanchez, 60. “This whole thing with Iraq just absolutely rips my heart out. It’s like we were in Vietnam all over again. … There are still young people dying for nothing.”

Aside from the debate, the sandal-clad tourists and the ear-splitting artillery salutes, there were quieter, more personal moments.

At Arlington Cemetery, John Brinkmann, a 24-year-old resident of Chaptico in St. Mary’s County, Md., carried a bouquet of six yellow roses to place at the grave of his grandfather, Army Col. Leland Holland, who was one of the captives during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.

Brinkmann said he remembered his grandfather’s stories about the huge welcome he and other hostages received when they returned home.

Brinkmann wasn’t sure if that sort of unity still exists in the country. “To the average person, (Memorial Day) is day off from work and that’s it,” he said. “But it’s not just a holiday for barbecues and sales. There are thousands of soldiers who no one remembers, and all they have here is a small white tablet.”

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