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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

More than 4,500 service members have not made it back safely from Iraq and Afghanistan. Yesterday we met three Section 60 mothers - women whose sons were killed in the wars. They meet in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. Today, we talk with them at their son's graves.

Arlington is a sea of white, bleached stones stretching to the horizon. It's a silent place, except for Section 60. Mothers have built small shrines to their sons all around here. There are ribbons in the trees and photographs leaning up against the stones. This is considered hallowed ground, and technically those shrines are against the rules at the cemetery - groundskeepers take them down every time they pass through - the mothers put them right back up. They come every week, bringing candles or herbs from their garden.

Ms. GINA BARNHURST (Section 60 Mother): I'm getting beach chair and my basket full off - you bring scissors to cut the flowers and you bring, you know, I have candles that I bring.

SHAPIRO: And so this is your weekly routine.

Ms. BARNHURST: My weekly routine, yeah. I jut go - have a journal that I write. I write letters to Eric. It helps me to feel like I'm still connected and close, which I know I am, but it just helps me.

SHAPIRO: Gina Barnhurst is a Section 60 Mom. Her son, Lance Corporal Eric Herzberg was killed in Iraq in 2006. He just had a birthday and his gravestone is covered in flowers, balloons and cards.

Ms. BARNHURST: You know, these are our babies. This is what, you know, when they have a birthday, you know, this is what you do for them. And so this is what we have to still do, you know?

SHAPIRO: He's buried next to a holly tree.

Ms. BARNHURST: I love it. And everybody calls it their tree. We call it Eric's tree but I'm sure they call it Shane's tree. And everybody puts little mementos in there and for Christmas we decorate it.

SHAPIRO: Further down the row, Paula Davis has set up a beach chair. She has a huge umbrella to shield her from the sun. The stone in front of her says Private First Class Justin Davis. He was killed in Afghanistan two summers ago.

Ms. PAULA DAVIS (Section 60 Mother): This is Justin, my son, my only child. And I've decided I want people to see, get an idea of the person that's in this grave. I want them to see this vibrant, young man.

SHAPIRO: This is great. So, you've got three photos and in one he's in uniform and he's in front of the flag. In another he's in tuxedo. But I have to say…

Ms. DAVIS: That's…

SHAPIRO: …my favorite…

Ms. DAVIS: …that's my favorite.

SHAPIRO: …is the one on the left…

Ms. DAVIS: And that's him.

SHAPIRO: …where's he's…

Ms. DAVIS: That's him.

SHAPIRO: …smiling. I don't know if he's joking around with friends but…

Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, and that was in Afghanistan on a mountain. And I said when I seen that photo, where is your helmet?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVIS: How come you don't have on your helmet? And…

SHAPIRO: A true mother.

Ms. DAVIS: And that to me embodies him. That smile, that million-dollar smile. He's on his mission and he's loving it. And I want people to see this young man and all his facets of life. I mean…

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

Ms. DAVIS: …he was 19 years old. His high school graduation, he was nothing to me but a baby. Then he went off, you know - the Army picture, he looks like a, you know, a grown man…

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

Ms. DAVIS: …you know, hard and tough, yeah. And then you see him in the war and he's got this big smile on his face. He's loving what he's doing. So, I want people to see that.

SHAPIRO: When you sit here, you've got your chair and your umbrella and a folder of pictures and your water. When you sit here in front of his grave where he's buried, what do you do?

Ms. DAVIS: I meditate and I just - 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: I notice you don't say I'm visiting my son's grave, you say I'm visiting my son.

Ms. DAVIS: That's right. I think it's just been the last couple of months I've been able to say my son's death, and even that sends a chill through me. I would always say what happened to my son.

SHAPIRO: And the other mothers here, the other family members, know exactly how you feel.

Ms. DAVIS: Oh yeah. Even talking about our sons, and we even say today, if our sons had ever met, they would have been friends 'cause they were so much alike. Just the spirit among these kids that are so much alike. And ever since the time I met Beth and Gina it's just been like every Sunday. You don't see one; I wonder if something happened; is something going on? And then when you look around and we try to be helpful when we see other people here and you kind of get to read body language and you know who wants to be left alone.

SHAPIRO: Um-hum.

Ms. DAVIS: I can see myself coming here on a walker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVIS: At least that's how I feel right now. I will be on a walker…

SHAPIRO: Fifty years from now and you'll…

Ms. DAVIS: Yeah - and I'll be coming out with my bag, with my chair, with my water, with my flowers.

SHAPIRO: Not every grave along these rows at Section 60 has flowers or photographs. Some just have a stone or two on top to show that someone came to visit. Other mementos are wedged into the soil between the gravestone and the grass. Then there's this, near the grave of Lance Corporal Nicholas Kirven.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

SHAPIRO: Kirven's mother is Beth Belle.

Ms. BETH BELLE (Section 60 Mother): Well, it has a lot of significance when we found out that we could plant a tree. And they've left the wind chimes there.

SHAPIRO: You come out here about a once a week?

Ms. BELLE: I come at least once a week, sometimes during the week. Every Sunday. It's our spiritual time. I come and just talk to him.

SHAPIRO: Beth Belle has been coming to Section 60 longer than many of the other mothers. Her son died three years ago; she marked the anniversary last month.

Ms. BELLE: This year was harder than any of the other years. And I think it's because the reality of it just is that coming here again, and this is why we're coming here. And this really happened and it's not going to change.

SHAPIRO: Good talking to you.

Ms. BELLE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And as she left, Beth just bent over and kissed the top of her son's gravestone.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: The mothers of Section 60, Beth Belle, Gina Barnhurst, Paula Davis and others, will gather at Arlington National Cemetery again this weekend. They'll be there in part for Paula. She's marking an anniversary this week. Her son, Private First Class Justin Davis was killed in Afghanistan two years ago tomorrow.

This is our second report on the mothers of Section 60. To hear more from them and to see video from the Arlington Cemetery, visit our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

SHAPIRO: This is NPR News.

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