RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne with Steve Inskeep.
The war in Iraq has hit another grim milestone: the number of American dead has now reached 4,000. That's according to a list compiled by the Associated Press. One of those Americans is buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.
There's a fresh grave at Section 60, Gravesite 8558. The headstone won't arrive for several weeks. When it does, the white stone will read Major Alan Greg Rogers. The words on that stone will give the outline of 40 years that took him from the U.S. to Iraq and finally back again. Steve has more.
(Soundbite of song, "The Caissons Go Rolling Along")
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
When they brought Major Rogers to rest, one of our producers brought a tape recorder. He heard a military band play a cheerful Army anthem. It's called "The Caissons Go Rolling Along." A caisson is the horse-drawn vehicle that once carried ammunition in battle and carries coffins afterward.
The mood shifted as soldiers approached the grave, shoes on wet pavement. And then came the caisson bearing Major Alan Rogers.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: Our producer tells us it was a busy day at Arlington, just as an Army chaplain began to speak at Rogers' gravesite…
(Soundbite of gunshots)
INSKEEP: …gunshots drowned him out. It was the salute from another Arlington funeral. The chaplain kept talking.
You should know that about 200 people came to the burial, soldiers and civilians alike.
(Soundbite of song, "Taps")
INSKEEP: They came even though it was far from Rogers' hometown in Florida. They came even though Major Rogers had no immediate family. Years before he was killed by a bomb in Baghdad, he buried both his parents. They were a childless couple, African-Americans, who'd adopted him at the age of five. Major Rogers had no wife or child to take away the flag that draped his coffin, so soldiers folded that flag and gave it to his cousin, Cathy Long.
(Soundbite of song, "Taps")
INSKEEP: Cathy Long brought the flag to a Washington bed and breakfast where she was spending the night. And late that afternoon, she welcomed us into the backyard, along with Rogers' distant relatives and friends.
Ms. CATHY LONG: Alan was like a second son to me, especially once his parents died. I am the person that kind of stepped in and said to him, look, I know that you're away a lot. You need somebody in the family because you need to know that wherever you go, that you're loved. The fact that he was adopted was just incidental. He was still family.
INSKEEP: You became closer to him after his parents died, or in the period when his parents were sick.
Ms. LONG: Yes.
INSKEEP: How did he get through that period?
Ms. LONG: Alan was a very spiritual person. He was an ordained minister. His faith helped him get through it. His close friends and family, you know, we all surrounded him with love and helped him to get through it. And with the help of God, he got through it.
INSKEEP: I think I read somewhere that he preached at his mother's funeral.
Ms. LONG: Yes, he did. And somehow, he mustered the strength and he got through it and he did a wonderful job.
INSKEEP: Now, how may times had he been to Iraq?
Ms. LONG: This was his third trip.
INSKEEP: Did he talk about whether he enjoyed his work there?
Ms. LONG: I know that he enjoyed his work. I know he was very highly regarded. And I said to him one time, you know, how can you just give your life to the military? And he said to me, because I'm a soldier. 'Cause that was Alan.
Mr. SHAY HILL: He liked to answer your question with a question.
Unidentified Man #1: With a question.
Ms. LONG: With a question.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: That's Shay Hill, Alan Rogers' best friend. Rogers was due to be Shay's best man at his wedding on March 1st.
Mr. HILL: One question he left for me when I was figuring out if Theresa was the one for me, etc., he said do the yokes match? The yoke on a ox, when you're a farmer and you're plowing, two oxen pulling that plow through the field. If the yokes don't match, one of them gets pulled behind.
Ms. LONG: One of the things that we talked about - I did have a question about are we making a difference there? And he came back with something like, well, if we don't go and make a difference, who's going to do it? He was not the type of person that you could give him the answer, let someone else do it.
INSKEEP: Had he asked for burial in Arlington National Cemetery?
Ms. LONG: It was one of the choices, and, yes, I did ask because I felt that that was it. There was no other place more appropriate to bury him than at Arlington.
INSKEEP: It's a place that Alan Rogers knew. He was an intelligence officer stationed for a time nearby at the Pentagon. Before his final tour in Iraq, Major Rogers decided to visit the cemetery with his friend Shay Hill.
Mr. HILL: It was just ironic that we were there, you know, less than a year ago, and then we're back here to give him the respect and the honors that he deserves for the sacrifice he made.
INSKEEP: Whose idea was it to go to Arlington?
Mr. HILL: I guess it was his idea.
INSKEEP: Did the subject - I'm sorry to ask - but did the subject come up? Because he would've known he was going back at some point.
Mr. HILL: He had mentioned that, in talking about at one point, being either laid to rest with his parents in Florida or somewhere else. And he had said I want to be in Arlington Cemetery.
Ms. LONG: I don't believe that Alan knew specifically that he was going to die that day. He just happened to get out to do a job that needed to be done at that moment, and that was it.
Mr. HILL: He did call every one the day before.
Ms. LONG: Yes, he did. Yes, he did.
Mr. HILL: And maybe had subconsciously wanted to just touch base with everybody.
INSKEEP: Who got a phone call from him the day before? You got one.
Mr. HILL: Our friend Kelly did.
Ms. LONG: I received a call from him. We happened to be up in Georgia at the time, and he was calling just to say hi and he wanted to thank us for the care packages that we'd sent him at Christmastime. And we talked for quite a long time. I said, well, I know you have to go. I know that this is long distance.
And he seemed like he didn't really want to get off the phone, and I always ended the phone call with I love you. And he'll say I love you, too. But there was something about his I love you this time that just seemed just not usual. But when I hung up the phone, I almost wanted to call him back and say, are you sure you're okay? But then I thought, well, if I call him back and ask if he's okay and he tells me no, what can I do about it? So I didn't.
I said, well, the next time I talk to him, I'll find out what was that about, not expecting the next day that two soldiers would come to my door. And I thought they had the wrong house. I kind of, like, no, I know you don't want to come to my house, and they - and so I let them in. And I just said, you know, just, please, don't tell me it's Alan. And they said, yes, it was Alan. And that was it.
INSKEEP: Those are relatives and friends of Major Alan Rogers. They buried him at Arlington National Cemetery this month. Eventually, they hope to divide his possessions. His cousin Cathy Long says she would like all the family to have something to help them remember Alan Rogers, one of 4,000 Americans killed so far in Iraq.
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