ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Today and tomorrow we bring you the story of mothers and their sons. These mothers found each other in a place none of them chose - now, they meet there every week.
This is Arlington National Cemetery and I'm standing in Section 60. This part of the graveyard is different from the rest of the grounds. There are decorations in some of the trees and many of the graves have flowers or little stones to let people know that someone's visited. These are the graves of people who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mothers often come here, and when they arrive they find others who have been through the same thing. They've become a group now - the Section 60 mothers.
Ms. PAULA DAVIS (Member, Section 60 Mothers): My name is Paula Davis. I'm the mother of Private First Class Justin Ray Davis. He was my only child, he was 19, and he was killed June 26, 2006 in Afghanistan.
Ms. GINA BARNHURST (Member, Section 60 Mothers): I'm Gina Barnhurst and I'm the son of Lance Corporal Eric W. Herzberg. Sorry, what did I say?
SHAPIRO: I understand. It's a difficult...
Ms. BARNHURST: I'm sorry - the mother of Lance Corporal Eric W. Herzberg, killed in action in Iraq October 21, 2006.
Ms. BETH BELLE (Member, Section 60 Mothers): I'm Beth Belle and I'm the mother of Lance Corporal Nicholas Kirven. He was 21 and he was killed on May the 8th, 2005 - Mother's Day - in Afghanistan.
SHAPIRO: Almost every week this group meets in Section 60. But this is one of the hottest days of the year, so they've retreated inside.
Ms. BARNHURST: Oh, it's nice and cool in here.
SHAPIRO: Is it just word-of-mouth that people know that everyone's gathering here instead of by the grave?
Ms. BELLE: You know, Gina created an entire email list and we just send emails out to people and let them know - to just remind them.
SHAPIRO: Beth Belle helped create this group. Now, the email list has more than 50 members.
Ms. BELLE: Gina and I are always…
Ms. BARNHURST: We're always here. If it's just us, we don't care.
Ms. BELLE: Yeah. And we just sit and catch up with each other.
Ms. BARNHURST: That's right. It's just really nice.
SHAPIRO: When new mothers and family members join the group, do you see them going through things that you have already been through?
Ms. BARNHURST: It's interesting because you do, but at the same time when we talk to each other, so much of the time we feel like we're at the beginning…
Ms. BELLE: Because you do feel like you're losing it completely…
Ms. BARNHURST: One of the first things you asked me was does this get any better?
Ms. BARNHURST: Yeah, that was…
Ms. BELLE: And I had to tell her no.
Ms. BARNHURST: That sucks, but it's true.
Ms. BELLE: You feel like you're in a different world than anybody else.
Ms. BARNHURST: They don't speak the language.
Ms. BELLE: They don't speak your language and you can't explain your language to them.
SHAPIRO: Then it must have been amazing for you to find each other, people who do speak your language.
Ms. BELLE: Absolutely. And you feel like you're alone. I mean, I came to Arlington knowing, rationally, you're not alone but feeling that you're the only person this has ever happened to.
Ms. BARNHURST: But when you meet that first person it's, like, that's priceless.
Ms. BELLE: So, you feel such a relief because you can be who you are. And if someone comes up to you and says how are you doing, you can really tell them how you're doing.
SHAPIRO: So, how are y'all doing? It was your son's birthday this week?
Ms. BARNHURST: Yes. You might not want to start with me. Start with them.
Ms. BELLE: Well, I just told June - she came over to me and I was sitting with Nicholas and having a moment, and she said what's going on? And I said a nephew that grew up with Nicholas just had his first baby; a niece that grew up with Nicholas is getting married on the 21st. And I look at these events and I think Nicholas should be here, and he was such a part of the family.
And it clouds everything. And you want to be happy and you are happy. I'm thrilled, and at the same time I'm so sad. I look at my surviving children and it's such heartache for me as their mother because they're in so much pain and I can't do anything about it except just love them. That's all I can do. I can't take their pain away. It's excruciating. I don't know how else to explain it. You know.
SHAPIRO: You're shaking your head.
Ms. BARNHURST: Oh yeah. Well, as a mom, you know, and the whole process of the death, I mean, our job is to protect our kids and we would do anything to do that. I feel like I should've just jumped across that ocean and known that he was in trouble. It's irrational but it's a mom's…
Ms. BELLE: Guilt.
Ms. BARNHURST: Guilt. You feel like you should've protected them and you didn't.
(Soundbite of door shutting)
SHAPIRO: Somebody's arrived.
Ms. BELLE: There's Paula.
Ms. BARNHURST: That's Paula.
SHAPIRO: Nice to meet you, Paula.
Ms. DAVIS: Hi, nice to meet you.
Ms. BARNHURST: Paula, how's the running going?
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, we won't talk about that in all this heat.
Ms. BELLE: I didn't know that - are you training?
SHAPIRO: Paula Davis signed up to run in the Army Ten-Miler, a race held here in Washington each fall. She'll be running for her son, Private First Class Justin Davis, who was killed two years ago.
Ms. DAVIS: My plan is not to let him down. I can't go out, like, you know, they said, well, if you don't get to a certain spot by a certain time, there's a truck that comes along and they put you in the back…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DAVIS: And drive you to…
Ms. BARNHURST: (Unintelligible) that truck…
Ms. DAVIS: Drive you to the finish line.
SHAPIRO: You must feel like you know each other's kids by now.
Ms. BELLE: Oh yeah.
Ms. BARNHURST: Oh yeah.
Ms. DAVIS: We do.
Ms. BELLE: We just said that, didn't we? My husband said, isn't it so sad that we never got to know Brian and we never got to know Justin and Dylan and Eric. And I said, but I feel like I know them so well.
SHAPIRO: And if it hadn't been for Brian and Justin and Dylan and Eric and Nicholas, you all would never had met each other?
Ms. BARNHURST: No.
Ms. DAVIS: No.
Ms. BELLE: And you don't wish this on anyone. At the same time to all have each other…
SHAPIRO: I mean, what a gift that they could give to you that you all now have this group, these connections.
Ms. BARNHURST: And it's a connection that's instant, instant connection and it's deeper than you might have with another person for years. Don't you feel like?
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah.
Ms. BELLE: Yeah.
Ms. BARNHURST: 'Cause you cut through a lot.
Ms. DAVIS: Emotions are very raw at any time and everybody understands. You don't have to explain.
Ms. BARNHURST: It's just that - like I said - it's that connection that's like no other connection.
SHAPIRO: Eventually these mothers did come over here to Section 60 in Arlington. They park near this holly tree decorated with stars for one of the son's birthdays.
Ms. BARNHURST: We cut the cardboard stars and put them in the tree.
Ms. DAVIS: I love that.
Ms. BELLE: Oh, happy birthday.
Ms. DAVIS: Happy birthday.
Ms. BARNHURST: Yeah, my niece and nephews decorated the tree for me.
SHAPIRO: So, for his 22nd birthday you put 22 stars…
Ms. BARNHURST: Twenty-two…
SHAPIRO: …in the tree?
Ms. BARNHURST: Yeah, so the 21st day of class.
Ms. BELLE: I thought that might have been you, Gina.
SHAPIRO: Under the tree, the grave of Lance Corporal Eric Herzberg, Gina Barnhurst's son. The women began to drift apart to sit at the graves. One put down a beach blanket and laid down on it. Another set up a little chair with an umbrella to block the sun.
Ms. DAVIS: A lot of times I'm still at that place where I just still can't believe this is where I am now. This is my son and I just cannot believe that he's gone. I don't want him to ever be forgotten.
SHAPIRO: Tomorrow we'll hear more from these mothers here at the graves of their sons.
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SHAPIRO: Some of these women describe what it was like to meet another Section 60 mother for the first time at NPR.org.
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SHAPIRO: This is NPR News.
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