ARLINGTON, Va. – He didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t have to.
President Obama simply stuck out his hand and asked for my name as he stepped toward me amid a bone-chilling drizzle in the Gardens of Stone.
This was Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. I wasn’t there as a reporter, but to visit some friends and family buried there when Obama made an unscheduled stop – a rare presidential walk among what Lincoln called America‘s “honored dead” – after laying a Veterans Day wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
What I got was an unexpected look into the eyes of a man who intertwined his roles as commander in chief and consoler in chief on a solemn day filled with remembrance and respect for sacrifices made – and sacrifices yet to be made.
I’m sure the cynics will assume this wasjust anotherObama photoop.
If they’d been standing in my boots looking him in the eye, they would have surely choked on their bile.
His presence in Section 60 convinced me that he now carries the heavy burden of command.
I had stopped at Arlington to see the resting place of Ken Taylor, Ed Lenard and Dave Sharrett. Ken and Ed survived their service, in World War II and Korea, and died as old men. Dave did not leave Iraq alive. He was 27.
Obama arrived just before noon at the serene Section 60, where many of the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried together – and where many more heroes will undoubtedly be laid to rest before this President leaves office.
It’s a section typically bustling with those visiting loved ones. Every time I go there, more and more graves have been dug into the earth.
The President and First Lady Michelle Obama emerged from their armored limousine hatless in the frigid downpour and took a slow stroll into the soggy rows of white marble headstones.
They stopped first at the grave of Medal of Honor recipient Ross McGinnis, an Army private who threw himself on a grenade in Iraq three years ago to save four buddies.
A sad-faced woman reached for Obama’s hand and pointed him to a nearby plot.
The face of another woman – who had grimly sat in a folding chair for hours next to a headstone she’d arranged flowers around – suddenly broadened into a smile as she stood to embrace Obama and thank him for paying his respects.
She was so overcome with emotion that a soldier from the Army’s Old Guard had to console her afterward.
The President patted backs of adozen other Gold Star relativesand troops visiting buddiesnow in the ground.
He gave hugs. He shook wet, chilly hands. He wanted to know something about each fallen warrior.
He began to slowly trudge back toward the motorcade – and to another White House huddle with his war council, which is advising him whether to send up to 40,000 additional troops into harm’s way in Afghanistan.
And then Obama noticed a tall, bearded figure. He probably didn’t see the mud-caked combat boots I trudged around Afghanistan in a few years ago.
“What’s your name?” a somber President asked as he extended his hand.
“James Meek, sir,” I replied, struggling to pull off my wool glove and pull my hood back from my head. “I’m here visiting a friend, Pfc. David H. Sharrett II, who was killed in Iraq last year.”