Honoring Those Amidst Gardens of Stone

President Barack Obama and Gen. Karl Horst take part in an unannounced visit to Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
This past week's Veterans Day observances had deep personal meaning for countless Americans . . . not least our guest contributor James Gordon Meek:

I hear "Taps" playing every night. (I live near the Arlington National Cemetery.)

I'm a Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News, but when I visit the Gardens of Stone, I go as a friend and relative of our "honored dead."

Men like Pearl Harbor fighter ace Ken Taylor, who is almost like family; Korean War veteran Ed Lenard, who is family; and Iraq War hero Dave Sharrett, whose father is a good friend.

Ken and Ed survived their wars and died as old men. But Dave was 27 when he was killed last year in battle.

He's buried in Section 60, with many of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Obama laid a Veterans Day wreath on Wednesday at the Tomb of the Unknowns. I was in Section 60 that morning when he made an unscheduled stop before huddling with his war council on sending more GIs into harm's way.

In a bone-chilling drizzle, he and the first lady walked through the rows of gleaming white headstones.

I saw the President embrace grieving widows, mothers and battle buddies tending to the graves of loved ones. He asked about each one. And then the President suddenly extended his hand as he strolled over to Dave Sharrett's grave.

I gripped it and told him who I was visiting.

He read Dave's headstone carefully - and asked about him.

Dave's father was my high school English teacher. And we knew his son as a funny kid we called "Bean," who used to crawl around at our feet. We used to look after Dave, but when he grew up, he watched over all of us. He was one of the toughest troopers in the 101st Airborne, I told the President.

What I didn't tell him was that Dave was killed by friendly fire, or that the Army tried to whitewash it. It wasn't a moment for complaint - it was about a young hero's ultimate sacrifice.

Now, cynics may say this was just an Obama photo op. But they weren't there looking him in the eye. I saw a man fully carrying the heavy burden of command on a weighty day.

He didn't have to go to Section 60. And White House aides didn't screen any of us. If a widow or grief-stricken parent had chewed him out, the press there would have reported it.

I did tell him I'm a journalist. You know what the President said?

"Just because you're a journalist, James, doesn't mean you can't honor your friends here."