Friday, May 28, 2010
Remember the glory of the spirit, the valor and sacrifice of our fellow countrymen. This Memorial Day, I want to share with you five sobering stories from Jim Sheeler’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Final Salute: A Story Of Unfinished Lives.
Sam and Mary Holder,
Jo, Bob and Kris Burns
Sam and Mary Holder brought out a bouquet of flowers, a bucket and a camera to Fort Logan Cemetery.
“We have a kind of ritual. Mary cuts the flowers and I make sure the water’s there,” Sam Holder, Sr. said. “The last thing I do is take pictures.”
The ritual began more than a year before, when Jana Kramarova, their son’s fiancée, sent twenty-seven red roses for what would have been his twenty-eighth birthday. Since she lived in Prague, Sam Holder, Sr. took a photo of the flowers and sent it to her via email. He did the same thing the next week and the next week.
The photos capture the changing seasons. In October, the flowers sprout from a pumpkin. In December, snow covers the grave. In January, artificial flowers contrast brown dormant grass.
The only contrast is the dull, gray marble tombstone and its inscription.
Eventually, as families heard about Holder’s photos, they asked if he could take pictures of their sons’ graves, too. Soon Mr. Holder was emailing photos of Kyle Burns’s grave to Kyle’s parents in Laramie and photos of Navy SEAL Danny Dietz’s tombstone to his widow, Maria Dietz, who lives in Virginia; she calls the regular emails “a window to my husband’s grave.”
As they looked at the graves together in 2006, the couple realized that it would have been Kyle Burns’s twenty-second birthday. Mary Holder placed flowers on the grave, and then, to their surprise, Kyle’s mother and brother arrived at the cemetery after driving from Laramie.
As the two families stood in the section of the cemetery that holds the casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan, they exchanged hugs.
“I didn’t know it was Kyle’s birthday today,” Sam Holder, Sr. said.
Jo Burns sniffled a yes.
“What are you going to be up to for the rest of the day?” Mary Holder asked.
“Crying,” Jo Burns said.
“I thought the hardest days would be the holidays, Christmas and Easter,” she said. “But this is the hardest. Birthdays.”
As they stood at the marker, they looked at the date they had in common etched in stone.
“Veteran’s Day,” said Kyle’s brother, Kris.
As the afternoon wore on, only a few cars entered the cemetery. Before his son died, Sam Holder was one of those who never been inside Fort Logan.
“You look at the war and it only touches a few of us. It doesn’t touch the majority of the America people,” Sam Holder, Sr. had said earlier. “What always bothered me was how disproportionately the whole war has affected people in the U.S.”
He knelt down, propped his camera on another grave and snapped photos of his son’s grave. Then he walked to Danny Dietz’s tombstone and took another picture.
The Holders said their son believed in the war and in what he was doing. His parents said they do, too. Despite their son’s receiving the Silver Star, they don’t dwell on the battle. They don’t need to. In some ways, Sam Holder, Sr. said, he has heard enough war stories. As a Vietnam veteran he has seen how too many of them end.
“I have friends whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial. You go there and you think of how much life I’ve experienced that they never will.”
When he got back to Kyle Burns’s grave, he stopped.
“Sometimes I’ll just stand back with the camera,” he said as he looked at the grave, his wife and Jo Burns. Sometimes in addition to the gravestone photos, he said he likes to capture the spontaneous moments that not enough people see, that not enough people want to see—those that continue long after the battle is over.
“Sometimes you can get some pretty touching pictures,” he said.
At the foot of their sons’ graves, the two mothers embraced once again. Sam Holder, Sr. brought the camera to his face and pressed the button.