Ballard, 1995 graduate of Mountain View High and only son of Karen Meredith, was killed in An-Najaf on Memorial Day in 2004. Everyone I've ever met who knew him has only positive things to say about the man, and his personal story is mainly that of a war hero who won several medals and deeply touched many lives. But, through no fault of his own, it has also has become inextricably tied up with the poor planning and misconduct of the Iraq war.
Ballard's was one of the first units to be extended as part of the military's "stop-loss" program, a direct consequence of the Pentagon's decision to ignore officers who said more troops would be needed for a post-war occupation. He was killed by an equipment malfunction when his tank struck a tree during a firefight in An-Najaf, part of the insurgency that military planners refused to consider as a possibility. His mother was unable to even see a picture of his coffin, and was fed a false story about how her son died for more than a year. (Visit her blog at Gold Star Mother Speaks Out and make sure to read the post on Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey's vigil).
The most striking thing about Ballard's section of Arlington is the amount of open space nearby, as if it being kept in reserve for thousands of more dead soldiers from this misguided war. At one point two years ago, Ballard's was the last row of his section. More recent graves have soldiers as young as 19, and the grass has yet to grow over the newest of these.
The day before, at the World War II memorial, I was struck by two quotes I found engraved on the walls there.
"They fought together a brothers in arms; they died together and now they sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation -- the obligation to insure that their sacrifice will help to make this a better and safer world in which to live."
-- Admiral Chester Nimitz
“We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”
-- Army Chief of Staff George Marshall
It was impossible not to think of them again as I said thanks to Ballard and his fellow soldiers, and marvelled at the enormity of both Arlington itself and our unmet obligation to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers buried there and the millions of their comrades whose graves are elsewhere.