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On Memorial Day veterans count who we've lost, knowing there'll be more to count next year

Every war we keep fighting means that we have to bury more soldiers like my friend Tyler.
Image: Tyler Parten and Erik Edstrom
Tyler Parten, left, and Erik EdstromCourtesy of Meg Rust

You can only ever have 10 summers in your 20s — no more. What you don't know is whether, maybe, you'll have less.

Tyler Parten had five summers.

Just before deploying to Afghanistan in May 2009, just before Tyler’s last summer of his 20s, we went to the Golden Bee, a little piano bar in Colorado Springs, near where we were stationed at Fort Carson. It was styled as an English gastropub; its claim to fame, besides the piano player, was that it served yards of beer.

At some point in the evening, the piano man offered a nod of recognition to Tyler, and suddenly between songs, they switched places. Tyler, of course, played “Piano Man” by Billy Joel, “Clocks” by Coldplay and a few Beatles songs and the jolly audience, most of us half in the bag, sang along. Tyler was a true Renaissance man: high school valedictorian, West Point honor graduate, musician, composer, Arabic speaker; he knew how to woo a crowd, too. By the end of the evening, we hailed the bartender, requesting the tippity-top shelf, too expensive, I-might-die-soon whiskey, hoping it might extinguish our pre-deployment jitters.

It was one of the last drinks we ever had together. Tyler was killed about three months into our deployment, on Sept. 10, 2009.

When I found out that Tyler had been killed, I took my grief and treated it like nuclear waste: I found a deep, dark emotional mineshaft, poured the emotions into rickety, self-made barrels and threw them down. I hoped the mineshaft was deep enough, and the barrels strong enough, to last until I could deal with it later — back in America.

I returned to the States in June 2010 and, like 75 percent of the soldiers in my infantry platoon, was fully intact — physically, that is. Later I was sent to serve as part of the Honor Guard on Fort Myer, in Arlington, Virginia. One of my duties was to lead the full honors funerals in Arlington Cemetery for soldiers killed during the War on Terror. Those service members are buried at the frontier of the cemetery, dress-right-dress, in Section 60, looking east toward the Jefferson Davis Highway.

I learned a few simple lessons in that job: Tilt your dress blues hat low so you don’t have to look the family closely in the eyes; focus on the inevitable wad of tissues clutched tightly against the leg of a freshly pressed black suit or the seam of a black skirt; look, if you must, at the flowers, which always seemed to be lilies or gladioli. Do whatever is necessary to not absorb the grief around you; too much isn’t good for you.

In 2011, Tyler’s family decided to bring his cremated ashes to final rest in Section 60, providing me with an inauspicious honor: I would be one of a handful of people who could say they deployed to war with, and then buried in Arlington, one of their closest friends.

I prepared for the ceremony with obsessive care. The flair on my chest — Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, Ranger Tab, captain’s insignia — was measured to the micron. We all waited at McClellan Circle: the band, the firing party, the escort platoon, the body bearers, the chaplain, the horse-drawn caisson, its six white horses and me, the officer in charge. We marched, in slow cadence, to Tyler's grave.

The body bearers unloaded his urn from the caisson; through tears, Tyler’s family looked on. The chaplain delivered his sermon while I stood in position, waiting for my part.

The chaplain stepped back, and I stepped forward to render the final honors. I saluted Tyler’s remains while the firing party fired the 21-gun salute and the bugle played a sorrowful taps. The flag, folded into a tight triangle, was passed down to me.

This time, I would not be able to look down or turn away to prevent feeling too much grief.

I presented the folded flag to Tyler’s crying mother, looking her directly in the eyes while offering my condolences. We were taught to say, “Ma’am, this flag is presented to you on behalf of a grateful nation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.”

But this time, that was not enough. I added, “Tyler was one of my best friends in Colorado Springs. It was an honor to have known him. He truly was the best of us. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

As Tyler’s family held each other, moving slowly to the black cars, I finally let the enormity of the Tyler-sized hole in the universe to sink in. It hadn't gotten any smaller in the two years since it had been created.

Image: Erik Edstrom
Erik Edstom at Tyler's grave in Arlington National Cemetery.Courtesy of Kate Scott

But there next to Tyler’s grave were other freshly dug graves that did not yet contain their occupants — and beyond that, undisturbed earth, with more space for more graves. With more time and more war, it, too, will fill with headstones that will look, at a distance, just like Tyler's.

Around 1.4 million service members have lost their lives in wars throughout American history, and Memorial Day is intended to honor them. Some Americans pause and do just that. But I — and the soldiers I served with — count the people we don't want to forget on this day, even though some aspects of what we have lost can be counted and others cannot. And maybe next Memorial Day, as we keep fighting these wars unchecked, the number that we have to honor, and have to not forget, will be larger still.

So this Memorial Day, like every Memorial Day, I will raise a glass of tippity-top shelf, too expensive, we-all-die-someday whiskey to Tyler Parten, wishing he didn’t belong to the past tense. And when I taste the smoke and peat, I’ll pretend it’s for him. But really, it’s for me.