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US Looks Toward Memorial Day as Casualties Top 1000 in Afghanistan


The last Monday in May is "Memorial Day" in the United States, a national day of remembrance for the country's war dead. This year's observance comes as the number of U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan has surpassed 1,000.

Row upon row of gleaming white headstones stand on the hills overlooking Washington, at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a serene, yet somber view, the headstones standing guard over those who fell in battle and now rest on land that meshes the glare of stone with the green of nature.

Ten-thousand people are expected to visit the cemetery in observance of Memorial Day. It started as a burial ground for American Civil War dead. Now, more than 330,000 are buried there. On Memorial Day, the president or vice president traditionally lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Kaitlin Horst, the cemetery's spokeswoman, said, "As Americans, I think we have a sense of pride, pride in our country, pride in what we stand for and we also have a sense of pride in our military -- what our military has done over the course of our nation's history, to defend the rights and freedoms that we hold dear."

More than 600 casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lie in section 60 of the cemetery, a place called "the saddest acre in America."

It is here that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai recently walked through the grave stones during his visit to the United States. It was Mr. Karzai's first visit to this section.

American casualties in the nine-year Afghan conflict surpassed the 1,000 mark. Half of those have died in the past two years.

Analysts blame the increase on the turbulent national elections and a re-emerging Taliban facing a surge of U.S. troops, determined to push the insurgents from Afghanistan's provinces. Admiral Mike Mullen is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He says defense officials predicted the escalation. "I have said we expect this to be a tough year. And in fact, the insurgents - you know, the poppy season is over - they have gone back to get their weapons. It's that time of year. So that the violence level would rise doesn't - doesn't surprise me at all," he said.

U.S. and NATO Commander, General Stanley McChrystal said during his visit to Arlington with Mr. Karzai, he found the headstones of soldiers who had worked with him. "Every single casualty affects people, it affects leaders, but more importantly, it affects families, it affects children, it affects parents, spouses, so each one of them is sacred and I think we all know that," he said.

Former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah ran unsuccessfully for president last year. He says the key for getting out of Afghanistan is to gain the trust of the Afghan people and to explain the exit strategy. "There is still support, but at the same time, there is growing desire to know how long this support should continue and the result," he said.

Only then will Section 60 of the cemetery stop expanding.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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