More than 4,000 veterans, the essence of their lives reduced to a headstone, are buried in a rarely visited section of a Southeast Portland cemetery.
They were laid to rest at Lincoln Memorial Park, which was started in 1906 and was Portland’s cemetery for veterans until Willamette National Cemetery, the city’s official military cemetery, opened in 1951. The two cemeteries are just across the street from each other, separated only by Southeast Mount Scott Boulevard.
The veterans’ section at Lincoln Memorial — called the Veterans Patriot Garden — is among the oldest plots of land on the north edge of the property. In addition to veterans from World War I and World War II, the site includes graves of those who fought in the Spanish-American War in the late 1800s. It is a place in the 430-acre cemetery that rarely gets visitors, save for the day when it is time to prepare for Memorial Day.
Crystal Purdy-Newland, Lincoln Memorial’s operations manager, is blunt: “No one remembers these people.”
Fifteen years ago, she began reaching out to community groups throughout the year to see if people would be interested in coming to the Veterans Patriot Garden on the Wednesday before Memorial Day to honor the forgotten. The funeral home provides a lunch and small American flags to be placed at each headstone.
“It’s important to remember that we’re not just placing flags in the dirt,” she said. “We are literally acknowledging the name and the person beneath that headstone.”
This year, she said, 80 people volunteered.
“We think we’re doing this for the dead,” she said. “But it’s also for those of us who are living.”
One of this year’s volunteers was Mychol Robirds, 38, who served in the U.S. Army and suffered wounds during a 2004 suicide bombing attack in Iraq.
“Memorial Day isn’t just a day off of work,” said Robirds, who graduated from Portland’s Cleveland High School and joined the Army in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Something activated in me, and I signed up,” he said. “I’d never even shot a gun before.”
He said he became part of a team that made him realize he was serving a larger purpose in life. After training in Germany and in Bosnia, he was part of a group sent to Kuwait with a mission to cross into Iraq.
“It was surreal,” he said. “I went from playing Army to the real deal. We started going into Mosul and through Baghdad.”
On the morning of June 1, 2004, Robirds was part of a convoy returning to an Army base about 100 miles north of Baghdad. He was in the last vehicle of the convoy when he noticed a car on his tail.
“There were four of us in a soft-skin Humvee with just bolt-on armor for protection,” he said. “I was up top, swiveling around, had the gun and keeping an eye on things.”
He noticed a car on the bumper of his Humvee.
“I mean right on my bumper,” he said. “I could see this guy’s eyes. He had a button-down shirt. He didn’t look like one of the Iraqi workers who comes onto the base. Something wasn’t right.”
Robirds used the radio to call his superiors, saying he thought a suicide bomber was trying to follow the convoy onto the base. He kept his eye on the driver while waiting for orders on what to do.
“He was in a BMW,” said Robirds. “He looked me in the eye, made a crazy face and then it happened.”
All Robirds remembered was hearing what he describes as a “bing” when the driver detonated a massive car bomb. The force hammered Robird’s body.
“Everything slowed down, just the way you see in the movies,” he said. “I was in shock. Then I came out of it and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die in Iraq.’ ”
The bomb destroyed 24 cars and trucks. A line of Iraqi workers standing on the road and preparing to enter the Army base took the brunt of the blast — 11 died and 32 were wounded. The only two U.S. soldiers wounded were a guard who broke a leg and Robirds, who sustained the most serious wounds.
“Lucky,” he said. “When it blew, I fell back and hit my head on the radio mount and broke it off. This homemade shield I had up top was blown 200 yards into the base. My gun blew back and hit my chest. I had a tear in my aorta, and my eardrums were blown out.”
He was given emergency treatment on the scene, flown to an aide station for more extensive care and then airlifted to a hospital in Germany, where he underwent multiple surgeries.
Unable to return to the front, Robirds, who was awarded a Purple Heart, was later sent to a rear detachment and then discharged nine months later, in 2005. He returned to Portland to start a new life.
“I was in the military for just three years,” he said, “but it was so intense and crazy you’d think I was in there for 30 years. I’m still banged up. I’ve had some trauma and long-lasting injuries. I can’t hear out of one ear. The mental aspect of it all is still there.”
Now the owner of a credit-card processing company based in Vancouver, Robirds carries with him the determination of a solider.
“We can do anything and be anything as long as we persevere,” he said. “When you serve, you are a team.”
And that’s why he volunteered to be out in a forgotten part of a cemetery to prepare for Memorial Day. He arrived at Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, receiving flags and an assignment in a section of Veterans Patriot Garden. Robirds said everyone – directly or indirectly – knows of someone who served in the military.
“With every flag I put in front of a headstone I thought about that person,” said Robirds. “It wasn’t just a name. For part of their life they did the same things all people do. They had fun. They went to school. Then they somehow found the courage to stand up for their country.”
The most sobering graves, he said, were those honoring veterans from the Spanish-American War.
“That was so long ago,” he said. “I wonder what they did, what their mission was and what they thought about. I had so many questions. I wished I had an epilogue to their lives that gave me the answers.”
Each veteran buried at Lincoln Memorial, he said, answered the call to serve during a time of war.
“When you sign up, you know you could die,” he said. “That’s accepted. It’s strange to face that truth when you are young, almost a kid. These veterans loved our country. That was the defining factor in who they were.”
When the volunteers finished Wednesday, Robirds, wearing a suit and tie, headed off to work, to the real world. He carried with him the power, emotion and meaning of the experience of spending time in a forgotten section of a Southeast Portland cemetery.
He plans to be answer the call again next year, returning to walk in Veterans Patriot Gardens, flags in hand, pausing and reflecting at the headstones.
“I’m not mourning the loss of a life,” he said. “I’m celebrating a life lived.”