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What this mother of a fallen Marine told a soldier at Arlington Cemetery will blow you away

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Alison Malachowski holds a photograph of her son, U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. James Malachowski, in front of his grave in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, July 22, 2015. Staff Sgt. Malachowski was with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marines when he stepped on an improvised explosive device during his fourth combat deployment on March 20, 2011, while his unit was raising the Afghanistan national flag over a small compound near Patrol Base Dakota in Marjah Province. "He died a terrible, painful death," said Alison. "But he did not scream or cry and I know why - it was so he wouldn't frighten his guys. I know I sound like just another grieving mother - but he was one of those Marines; if a platoon wasn't doing well they'd assign him to straighten things out. His last words were, 'Is everyone OK?' He was all about taking care of his men." (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ken Scar)
Alison Malachowski holds a photograph of her son, U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. James Malachowski, in front of his grave in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, July 22, 2015. Staff Sgt. Malachowski was with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marines when he stepped on an improvised explosive device during his fourth combat deployment on March 20, 2011, while his unit was raising the Afghanistan national flag over a small compound near Patrol Base Dakota in Marjah Province. “He died a terrible, painful death,” said Alison. “But he did not scream or cry and I know why – it was so he wouldn’t frighten his guys. I know I sound like just another grieving mother – but he was one of those Marines; if a platoon wasn’t doing well they’d assign him to straighten things out. His last words were, ‘Is everyone OK?’ He was all about taking care of his men.” (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ken Scar)

Story by Sgt. Ken Scar

ARLINGTON, Va. – I noticed her in my peripheral vision as I was lying in the grass trying to get a meaningful photograph of all the “60s” etched into the backs of the gravestones. She wore a wide-brimmed hat and khaki pants that made her look like a gardener, not a Gold star mother tending to her son’s grave. I kind of wanted to register the sight of her sitting on her knees gently fussing with her careful arrangement around his headstone as just that and move on. Section 60 is a holy place, after all, and the thought of approaching a stranger there is daunting. Should you, or shouldn’t you? This was my third time there and I never had – but something about her caught me.

I was on the tail end of a two-week annual training at Fort Belvoir as a photojournalist with the U.S. Army Reserve. My officer in charge had given me the morning to go into Washington D.C., and get stock photos of whatever I could for the new USAR website. In an effort to maximize my time I decided to go in uniform and visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at sunrise, using my camera timer to get shots of myself there to make them relevant to the Army.

Surprisingly, I had the Wall all to myself that morning and got the photos I wanted in no time, so I decided to walk across Memorial Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery and see what else I could get.

Arlington offers a bounty of metaphor for a photographer. Row after row of white marble headstones cover the hillsides in quiet tides of grief. Here and there a bird will land on one of them. Shadows and patterns are everywhere you look. Leaves flitter in trees.

Section 60 lies on roughly 14 acres due west of the visitors’ center. I had been carrying my entire camera kit on my 46-year-old back since before sunrise so I was aching and sweaty by the time I stepped through the stones – but there is a strange peace there that always silences anything my body is feeling.

Freelance journalist Simon Worrall, writing for National Geographic, might have described it best:

“It’s a tiny piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle. No famous poets or presidents are buried there. No admirals or generals. Instead Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is the final resting place of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in America’s most recent wars, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. The emotions it inspires, intensified every November 11 on Veterans Day, are raw. Its stories, heartbreaking.”

Heartbroken. That’s how I feel – as a Soldier, as an American – when I walk in Section 60.

That’s how I felt when I glanced down a rank of gravestones and saw her there: A solitary little gardener with delicate, motherly hands carefully placing flowers and mementos around a headstone.

As a photographer, my first impulse was to point one of my cameras at her and take a few shots. What I was seeing could make an iconic photo.

But as a Soldier and combat veteran, I just didn’t have it in me to take a picture without her blessing.

So I put my cameras down and approached her as she patted the earth and rested flowers against the stone. I offered a small American flag I had been carrying with me all day.

“Excuse me, Ma’am – would you like to use this?”

When she looked up and saw a Soldier in uniform, her reaction was immediate.

“Oh yes I would! Thank you!”

It was my uniform that instantly bonded us. The second she saw it she knew I was a friend. I joined the Army when I was 40 years old, and the depths of the brotherhood I am now a part of will never cease to amaze me.

I asked her if it was her son’s grave, and she completely opened up to me.

“Yes. His name was James Malachowski – my Jimmy. He joined the Marines when he was 17 – left for basic the day after he graduated high school. He was on his fourth deployment when he was killed. March 20, 2011.

“I know you’re thinking I’m just a grieving mom – but he really was special. He was one of those Marines. Those Marines. When there was a platoon that wasn’t doing so well, they’d assign him to it to straighten them out. He was on the Marine Corps Rifle Team – the one that travels all over. He made distinguished shooter at 13 months – which was not a record time but it was an unbelievable short amount of time. He was a staff sergeant – and being in the military you can understand the significance of this – he was buried with only one hash mark on his sleeve. For a staff sergeant that’s pretty amazing. You know how hard it is to make rank in the infantry.”

Alison Malachowski, left, talks to Michael Frazer, who serve in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps together with her son Marines Staff Sgt. James M. Malachowski, as they visit his grave at the Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va., Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. Staff Sgt. Malachowski, 25, of Westminster, Md., died March 20, 2011, while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Arlington National Cemetery is relaxing its policies to allow family members of those buried in its section for those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan to leave behind small mementos and photos to honor those soldiers, a spokeswoman said Wednesday. Section 60 is the part of the cemetery that is home to most of those killed in recent fighting. Families in that section had been leaving stones, photos and other mementos at their loved ones' gravesites, even though cemetery policy strictly regulates such impromptu memorials.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Alison Malachowski, left, talks to Michael Frazer, who serve in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps together with her son Marines Staff Sgt. James M. Malachowski, as they visit his grave at the Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va., Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. Staff Sgt. Malachowski, 25, of Westminster, Md., died March 20, 2011, while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Arlington National Cemetery is relaxing its policies to allow family members of those buried in its section for those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan to leave behind small mementos and photos to honor those soldiers, a spokeswoman said Wednesday. Section 60 is the part of the cemetery that is home to most of those killed in recent fighting. Families in that section had been leaving stones, photos and other mementos at their loved ones’ gravesites, even though cemetery policy strictly regulates such impromptu memorials. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Over the next hour or so we sat in the grass in front of his headstone – me holding back tears and her letting them flow – and she told me all about her Jimmy. How, while deployed, he would fill empty ammo boxes with dirt and attach them to survey sticks as part of an improvised gym to keep himself and his soldiers in shape. How he ran ten miles every day. How he earned meritorious promotion to staff sergeant. How he taught rifle instruction to more than 50,000 new recruits at Paris Island.

“Jimmy as a child was very inquisitive, tenacious and fearless to the point we had to keep a constant eye on him. I even put bells on his shoes when he was a little guy so I could find him. He had an amazing grasp of math and science. He won the Grand Prize in Entomology at the Maryland State Fair at age 9.”

Like generations of hard charging boys everywhere, he was on the wild side in his teen years. It was a challenge for his parents to keep him from sabotaging himself. Then he made the decision to change direction in life and joined the Marines.

“Just before his first deployment, he told me he had had an epiphany. With a big grin he said he realized the world didn’t revolve around him and that he was with his kind of people, Infantry Marines. He then apologized for all the trouble he had caused us while in high school. The Marine Corps grew him in ways the civilian world never would.”

Throughout his entire life, he never stopped amazing her.

And she marveled that she just really liked him – beyond a mother’s love. She simply loved his company.

After a few minutes of listening to her, I liked him too. I was proud of him.

Toward the end of our chance meeting, former Marine Sgt. Danny Gonzales joined us. She had been expecting him. He greeted me like a brother and told me that he and James had been inseparable friends even before they were both selected for the Marine Corps Rifle Team together. They were the best of the best. I could feel the weight of my uniform on me as he spoke.

Presently, the three of us found ourselves standing around Jimmy’s grave as the birds chirped and the leaves rustled, toasting to his memory with homemade moonshine that was sharp and strong, like a Marine.

There are moments in life that go off like a flashbulb – bright, disorienting, and permanent. Later, once you’ve processed the image, you return to it again and again for the rest of your days. This was one of them for me.

“He knew he was going to die,” she told me. “He told me the day before he deployed. He said Mom, I just don’t want people to forget I ever lived.”

By that time, we’d gotten to know each other a little. “You have kids,” she said. “How would you answer your son if he said that to you?”

I couldn’t answer. All I could do was look into her eyes and wish I could erase the pain out of them – but that kind of pain is unstoppable. The best I could do was sit in the grass and share it with her for a while, and take the picture.

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