I walked the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in 2009 for the first time. I remember the quiet somberness and how my heart felt so heavy, especially while watching the march in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We had been at war for a while at this point and I was newly married to my own service member. Being there was an uncomfortable and heart-wrenching reminder of the cost of their devotion to duty and country.
Eleven years later, my return to those grounds would bring me quite literally to my knees. Entering those gates in 2021, my life was very different. I was deeply connected to military spouse friends who experienced catastrophic loss during the now 20-years-long War on Terror. Suddenly, those names weren’t just imagined heroes on white marble because now I knew some of their faces, too.
Army Staff Sgt. Michael H. Simpson was a man of deep Christian faith and a loving husband to Krista. They’d been planning to renew their wedding vows after his return home from his deployment to Afghanistan as a Green Beret. He was also a devoted father to his two boys, excitedly making plans for teaching them sports when they grew older. Instead, an IED planted by the enemy in May of 2013 would take away his chance to do any of those things. His last words before going into cardiac arrest were “wife, kids, love.”
Mike’s final resting place was where I went first. I’d met and become friends with his wife, Krista, two years prior and although I never got to physically meet her husband, I felt like I knew him from the stories she’d told. When I sat down to talk to him that day, the tears were freely flowing.
The true implications of war and our freedoms were right there, unable to be avoided.
One of my closest friends has been married to an Army Green Beret for over 16 years. He’s been deployed 15 times and lost countless friends since he joined the Army. They live far from Arlington so I offered to spend time with some of those friends for them. My first visit would be to the brother of their ambassador for Project 33 Memorial Foundation, their nonprofit which honors the memory of U.S. Special Operations soldiers who’ve been killed since 9/11.
Army Cpl. Michael Avery Pursel enlisted in the Army when he was 17 years old. He was known as a jokester and loved to push people to enjoy everyday moments; his smile could light up a room. His mother is a captain in the Air Force Reserve and his father retired as a staff sergeant in the Army. At one point, his dad was a drill sergeant for Army Basic Training and let Michael give the recruits commands when he was just 5 years old. Watching his dad put on his uniform every day to serve would inspire him to do the same.
Only two years after his enlistment in the Army, Michael was killed alongside five other soldiers by an IED in Iraq on May 6, 2007. It was a deployment that he volunteered for, knowing how many casualties were occurring during that time. He told his sister, Ashleigh, that if he went that meant that another husband and father didn’t have to.
After visiting with Michael for a while, I made my way to another part of Arlington. Although I didn’t know this next man personally, either, I remembered his name.
The evening of the attacks of 9/11, Army Private 1st Class Kristofor Stonesifer’s mother told a coworker that she was sure he’d be one of the first to “go in.” Kris always had his eye on Special Forces. He had excelled as an ROTC cadet in college and had an opportunity to be an officer but he enlisted instead. Kris was quiet, focused and actually known as a hippy amongst the guys. Stealth rangers weren’t typically long-haired and vegan.
Just days after Operation Enduring Freedom began in October of 2001, Kris’ helicopter crashed into Pakistan while completing a search and rescue combat support mission for Special Operations. He and Army Spc. Jonn Edmunds were the first combat-related deaths in the War on Terror. They wouldn’t be the last.
But what the world didn’t know is that Kris had broken a bone in his ankle just a month before his death. When the orders came after the 9/11 attacks for his regiment to deploy, he enlisted the help of his Ranger brothers in cutting his cast off to hide his injury. Kris didn’t have to go to the fight in Afghanistan. Although he probably wouldn’t want to be thought of as a hero, he was.
My last visit would be with Master Sgt. Nicholas Sheperty, a Green Beret. Before joining the Army he was in the Marine Corps for eight years as a member of the elite Marine Forces Special Operations Command. He had numerous combat deployments and absolutely knew his worth. A friend called him a wolf, saying that to go after a wolf successfully you needed one to do it. That was Nick.
When our Armed Forces aren’t in harm’s way protecting us, they are constantly training for it. Since 2006, we’ve lost over 6,000 service members to training accidents. Nick was with his unit conducting airborne operation exercises when he suffered fatal injuries in a training accident on April 17, 2019. He left behind a deeply-grieving family, team, and a fiance he’d been planning to marry.
Visiting Arlington National Cemetery again changed me. Although I would like to think I’d always been deeply grateful for the sacrifice of those buried there and throughout this country, I walked away with something new this time. I came away committed to living my life in a way that would honor them because being thankful isn’t enough for the magnitude of their service.
As you and your loved ones gear up for celebrating Memorial Day, I hope you too will be motivated by those who gave all so we wouldn’t have to. My intent isn’t that you’ll walk around in sadness all day, because they wouldn’t want that and neither do their families. But instead, take some time to pause and remember them. Know them. Make their sacrifice worth it. Be worth it.